Film Review: The Killing of a Sacred DeerColin Farrell and Nicole Kidman remind us why they’re stars in this shivery suburban satire about a doctor whose family must pay the price for a secret from his past.
The setting for Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest absurdist take on the violence underpinning society’s placid surfaces couldn’t be more mundane and the stakes couldn’t be higher. After seeing what kind of outré devilry Lanthimos conjures in the (unnamed) suburbs of Cincinnati, one could take the shushed, wooded streets and their Williams Sonoma dwellings as a kind of affront in themselves. It could be that the movie is trying to build on the tradition of cinematic shocks to the bourgeoisie. Behind every great McMansion there must be a great crime. But it’s just as possible that, even though there are some scenes that play like an Ionesco translation of American Beauty, Lanthimos just wanted his background to be as unspecific as possible, so as not to detract from the off-kilter and walloping doozy of a story he’s telling.
The picture of blasé self-satisfaction, Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a surgeon whose bedside manner is much like the everyday face he puts toward the world: flat but genial, agreeable to a fault. His family—beautiful and composed eye doctor wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and perfectly polite children Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Suny Suljic)—and their sprawling home look made to be put in a magazine spread. Not a man with secrets or a need to brag about much, because his house and family and air of calm supremacy speak for themselves.
Only Lanthimos is signaling from the start that all is not as it should be. The mixture of serene long-pan cinematography and jabs of alien-sounding music is alternately hypnotic and jarring. There is also the matter of Steven’s sneaking off to meet with Martin (Barry Keoghan). A teenager of unknown connection to Steven, Martin’s preferred method of interaction is an unwavering quiet intensity whose put-on politeness and sideways smiles do little to hide the underlying threat. He knows a secret about Steven’s past and is trying to extract a payment as restitution for what happened. They exchange awkward pleasantries in between parrying interrogations. Steven inquires generally about Martin while strenuously avoiding something critically important to both. Martin responds with a grifter’s longform flattery that will queasily transform into a form of vengeance born of Greek tragedy.
Their conversations would make the average person shrink in embarrassment. But by this point, Lanthimos has already established a world in which common rules of interaction don’t apply. There’s a narcotized cloudiness to all the interpersonal moments that we see in the early scenes that can’t help but feel like satire. Whether talking with Anna or his co-worker Matthew (Bill Camp), Steven has little to offer besides affirmations (“Great”), consumerist babble about goods like designer watches, and the occasional baffling non-sequitur (“Our daughter started menstruating”). None of this behavior is treated as anything out of the ordinary by his co-workers and family, who all appear to be living in the same fugue state, at least until Martin reveals the outlines of what he has in store for Steven’s family.
As in Lanthimos’ dystopic comedy The Lobster, Farrell shows a special knack for this brand of savagely funny and high-ironic badinage. He is somehow affectless while remaining a focal point of interest in each scene. That centering strength is key to the movie’s ability to pull off the darkly comedic high-wire act that becomes ever riskier the further we plunge into the ever-more-operatic demands that Martin puts on Steven.
Without giving away too much of what Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthimis Filippou concocted for Martin’s plan, it pushes the movie further into an arena of dark fantasy, filled with curses, portents, inexplicable illnesses, unexpected laughs and impossible choices. It would be going too far to say that the threat Martin poses to Steven’s family wakes them up from their slumber—though there is a pulpy Cape Fear element to Steven’s too-little-too-late attempts to shift from indifferent automaton to stout-hearted patriarch.
But it’s hard to ignore how Bob and Kim warm to Martin’s plaintively pathetic yet somehow forceful way of inserting himself into their lives. In one hard-to-forget scene, choirgirl Kim rides off with Martin on his motorcycle and sings him a pop song (Ellie Goulding’s “Burn”) laden with out-of-nowhere yearnings. By the time Lanthimos brings us to the movie’s ghastly and pitch-black conclusion, the extent of Steven’s family’s waking slumber is clear—only the price they pay for waking up is dear.
A tightly throttled work of cringing comedy and deadpan devastation, The Killing of a Sacred Deer shows Lanthimos is the equal of dark satirists stretching from Buñuel to Haneke. It will not be to everyone’s taste. But if it were, that would be pretty beside the point.
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