After crafting string of indie movies in his native language, Greek writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos enjoyed a critically acclaimed breakthrough with madcap quasi-comedy The Lobster. He has now reunited with the lead Colin Farrell for his next feature The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The plot follows cardiac surgeon Steven Murphy (Farrell) who lives a strange but comfortable life with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their children. Unbeknownst to his family, he befriends teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan), a former patient who looks up to Steve. Events take a sinister turn when the admiration turns to obsession and Martin places a bizarre curse on Steven, presenting him with an impossible choice.
Consistent with his previous project, Lanthimos quickly establishes his eccentric style which feels very detached from reality. The formal, honest, matter-of-fact interactions between characters makes each conversation unnatural, and this provides much of the humour. As the story progresses, this initial light-hearted laughter gradually transforms to hand-over-mouth horror as the combination of comedy and graphic violence leaves us unsure how to react to what we are bearing witness to. His idiosyncratic vision is complimented by unsettling screechy sound design and eerie visuals; the hospital corridor sequences are particularly disturbing, conjuring up comparisons to The Shining due to Steve’s son Bob’s strong resemblance to young Danny Torrance.
For such an abashedly peculiar method of filmmaking to have the desired impact, the actors involved need to be fully invested in the material. Farrell is already well versed in the delivery of Lanthimos’ dialogue, and excels again in his complex performance. Nicole Kidman shows her vast experience by adapting effortlessly to surrealism. She is no stranger to outlandish roles and her trademark icy quality lends itself to the part of Anna. The stand-out performer however is the rising Irishman Barry Keoghan. I’ve been a fan of his work over the past couple of years, and he possesses an oddness in his mannerisms already. He is pitch perfect as the flawed and unpredictable antagonist Martin, and is the charismatic beating heart of the narrative that unfolds.
With films as stylistically unusual as The Killing of a Sacred Deer, there is a risk of the narrative being side-lined and the novelty wearing thin, but on this occasion the madness is so measured and meticulous that it is compelling from beginning to end. There’s a richness and an intelligence to Yorgos Lanthimos’ work where grounded thought-provoking issues can creep to the surface from deep within a movie that could be, and will be, deemed as ridiculous at face value.