Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos follows up to the truly original The Lobster with another high concept black comedy, that despite all its rigour may just be a bit too dark for some.
The film starts with the very arresting image of a beating heart. The camera is above the heart, and we watch as the clamps come off and the patient is stitched back up. Set to the dramatic force of Franz Schubert’s Stabat Mater, it makes for quite an opener.
After the operation, cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) cleans up and then goes out for a walk with a young boy called Martin (Barry Keoghan). The nature of the relationship between them isn’t clear, Steven is quite paternal towards Martin but we know he isn’t his father.
Steven then goes to his well-appointed home where he shares an almost exaggerated harmony with his real family – wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and the slightly younger Bob (Sunny Suljic).
Farrell in particular has a lovely, deadpan delivery in the earlier scenes, similar to his style in The Lobster, which adds a comic edge to much of the intentionally banal dialogue in the opening stretches. He’s matched by Kidman, her ice-queen persona gleaming through, as she trots out such family dinner table lines as “we’ve all got lovely hair”.
The build up is devilishly tantalising, as the mysterious Martin ingratiates himself on Steven and his family. His appearance is often accompanied by eerie, foreboding music. Eventually we learn how Martin first met Steven and what his sinister plan is. It does indeed involve the killing of a sacred deer, but just who is the deer?
Dark and surreal, this is part black comedy, part Greek tragedy and a horror film of sorts. Fans of traditional horror may wish for more of an explanation as to the strange power that Martin holds over the other characters, but Lanthimos isn’t having a bar of that. Others will happily take a much more metaphorical approach to the narrative.
What can’t be disputed is the clinical control Lanthimos exerts over the tone of the film. He has a wicked sense of humour and loves to throw his audience into a moral conundrum.
He also coaxes great performances from his cast. Farrell and Kidman are both very funny in the first half of the film and effectively become more brittle as the stress of the unfolding events takes its toll. Young Irish actor Keoghan is remarkably chilling as Martin, casually delivering lines of pure menace. Cassidy perfectly conveys a combustible mixture of sexual awakening, teen rebellion and adolescent infatuation while Suljic is suitably angelic as young Bob, the only true innocent among the characters.
While The Killing of a Sacred Deer has the most intriguing of set ups, it marches inexorably towards a denouement that will leave some punters cold, and disappoint anyone expecting a conventional conclusion.
Lanthimos again proves himself to be a masterful filmmaker, but for all his technical assuredness, and despite offering plenty of food for thought here, this is unlikely to capture the public’s imagination in the same way that The Lobster did.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is currently screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival
Richard Leathem @dickiegee