You could say that director Yorgos Lanthimos gives The Killing of a Sacred Deer the texture and throat-clutching chill of a modern Greek tragedy. You’d be right, of course – the filmmaker hails from Athens; this is his second film in English – but you’d also be short-changing the depth of field of this artist’s ink-black comic vision. As he did in The Lobster, a fierce fable about single people who are given 45 days to fall in love or be transformed into an animal of their choosing, Lanthimos puts the protagonist of the mind-blowing, artfully absurdist takedown of the nuclear family in a truly untenable position.
He is Steven (Colin Farrell), a Cincinnati surgeon with a wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman, quietly devastating ), and two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). Their home is as sterile as the hospital where Dad plies his trade; Kubrick couldn’t have built a colder trap. But Steven has a problem. He’s a recovering alcoholic who operated on a patient while under the influence. The patient died. And now the dead guy’s teenaged son, a kid of terrifying serenity named Martin (Dunkirk‘s Barry Keoghan), wants revenge. For starters, he’d like to spend time with this surrogate father-figure. He’d like the doctor to have sex with his lonely mom (Alicia Silverstone). And, oh yes, he’d like Steven to sacrifice one of his own family members – it’s only fair, right? or else the teen will kill the lot of them through some genuinely mysterious means.
And there you have it: a Lanthimos scenario – co-written with Efthymis Filippou – that works on a subconscious level and wastes little time on mundane questions like, why doesn’t Steven call the cops? Or declare Martin insane? Or just fucking move?!? To show he means business, Martin starts inflicting a series of plagues: Steven’s kids will stop walking, eating and then, before dying, bleed from their eyes. That sure as hell puts the fear of God into Steven, especially when hospital tests can find nothing wrong with the couple’s now paraplegic children.
To say more would spoil your own working out of this profoundly disturbing, demonically funny Lanthimos puzzle. By the time all family members have come to accept the unacceptable and start kissing up to daddy not to pick them, Lanthimos and his pitch-perfect cast (everyone speaks in a mesmerizing monotone) have created a Sophie’s Choice of biblical proportions. As is always the case with the Greek filmmkaer, there are no easy answers (see also 2009’s cryptic, Oscar-nominated Dogtooth). Even the opaque hints can drive you cuckoo with frustration. Lanthimos does not coddle his audience. His M.O. is to shock, provoke and leave you talking to the voices inside your own head. The choice is yours.