Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a renowned cardiothoracic surgeon. He’s married to Anna (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist, and they have two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). They live extremely comfortable lives in a spacious and well-furnished home. Steven often meets with a teenager, Martin (Barry Keoghan), for lunches at a nearby diner, followed by walks down at the river. The nature of their relationship remains ambiguous until Martin reveals his motives.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the single most unsettling cinema experience of the year. It’s exacting and cruel; all the more so as its uneasy moments are deployed with such clinical precision that I often found myself slack-jawed. But it’s not empty cruelty: in Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous films, such as Dogtooth (2009) and The Lobster (2015), the nastiness is generated from the director’s satirising of bourgeois codes. His newest film is no exception.
Characters in Lanthimos’s films speak as though unaware that they could modulate sentence rhythms. The monotonous delivery of lines is strikingly effective as the sentences become ever more extraordinary. A deadpan line of Steven’s late in the film, involving a transgression in his pubescence, is so acidly funny that the laugh caught in my throat and simply wouldn’t leave.
It’s really Keoghan, last seen in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, who steals the film. Martin is an adolescent nightmare: seemingly innocent in his awkward manners and movements, with something menacing behind the distracted gaze. Farrell is marvellous as the terse surgeon (the film’s Agamemnon); but Kidman is even better; you can only watch in astonishment what she does after saying the words “general anaesthetic”.
Thimios Bakatakis’s cinematography recalls John Alcott’s work on The Shining (1980): constant tracking, panning, zooming in and pulling out. It results in an amazing control of the frame. Incessant movements coupled with the beautiful asymmetrical compositions result in a film that looks just as absurd as it sounds, with its alarming score and atonal sentences. It’s not what you could call ‘fun’ to watch, but it’s hauntingly magnificent, and it’s right up there with the best films of the year.