Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (2017)
by Hunter Bush
Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer will end up drawing a lot of comparisons - some of them from me - to his last film, The Lobster, because of Lanthimos' fondness for unusual stories and stilted dialogue and his decision to team with Lobster star Colin Farrell again. But while these similarities are there, Deer is the more grounded and at the same time more intangible of the two.
Farrell plays heart surgeon Steven, who has taken an awkward young man named Martin (Barry Keoghan) under his wing. They meet semi-regularly for meals at a diner or a walk by the riverside where they both make small talk that neither seems particularly comfortable with, giving their interactions that particular divorced dad vibe. When Steven tells Martin to remember to wear a helmet while riding his motorcycle, it seems more of a compulsory gesture than out of any genuine concern. Even after Martin shows up unannounced at the hospital, prompting Steven to lie to a colleague about who exactly Martin is, they seem mutually appreciative of the other's attentions and courtesy and Steven invites Martin to have dinner with him and his family soon.
Steven's home life is blissfully dull. His youngest child, Bob (Sunny Suljic) is more concerned with the attention he gets for his "lovely hair" than in doing his half of the chores, while daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) is making improvements in her singing lessons. Ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) keeps everything rolling along, picking up the slack for Bob and even finding time to indulge Steven in a bit of "general anesthetic" roleplay in the bedroom. When Martin does visit, he brings gifts and is very polite and complimentary; everything seems to go just fine. Bob and Kim seem to like him (though in different ways) and Anna even tells Steven to invite him around again.
That's all before Martin begins insinuating himself more forcefully into Steven's life, demanding more of his attention and showing up uninvited. And before Bob wakes up one morning without the use of his legs.
It's no surprise that there's something sinister behind Steven's relationship with Martin. As mentioned above, Steven instinctually lies to a colleague about Martin, saying he's a classmate of Kim's, so when Steven tells Anna that Martin is the son of a former patient who recently died in a car accident we know we probably can't believe all of that either. Barry Keoghan plays Martin with a controlled nervous energy that starts off seeming awkward or anxious but gradually becomes unsettling. When he has Steven meet with him in the hospital commissary a few floors above Bob's room and finally spells out what's going on it has a hurried, over-rehearsed quality that gives the words a sickening finality: "This is that critical moment that we both knew would come."
Martin blames Steven for his father's death - not in a car wrapped around a lamp post, as we'd heard, but on Steven's operating table two years prior. Since Steven has killed a member of Martin's family, he now has to choose a member of his own family to kill because as Martin sees it, "It's the only thing I can think of that is close to justice.” Whatever Martin's started has four stages: paralysis of the legs, loss of appetite, bleeding from the eyes, then death, and he clarifies: "They will all get sick and die. Bob will die, Kim will die, your wife will die. Understand?" To which Stevens responds: "No."
Steven really doesn't understand, almost defiantly so. Long after Kim has joined Bob in the hospital, after all the applicable tests have been run, Steven mindlessly suggests trips to the seaside and makes dinner requests like it's any other night. He's a man paralyzed by his indecision. Even after coming clean to Anna - and resorting to violent escalation against Martin - Steven keeps refusing to even think about making the decision that will save the lives of two-thirds of his family. Anna, well aware how incompetent her husband is and long accustomed to picking up her family's slack, chooses to do anything she can think of to try and make sense of the situation. Ultimately, however, the final decision will fall to Steven, just as Martin said.
Lanthimos loves giving his actors melodramatic dialogue to deliver in the most banal way possible which is part of the humor in The Lobster, but in The Killing of a Sacred Deer actually serves a more nefarious purpose. It's a kind of Trojan horse allowing the idea of a supernatural curse to exist in a discordantly modern world. It's the kind of disharmony that might ruin the film if it was only concerned with how this is happening; if it hinged on some final twist to tie it all together. In its beating, prepped-for-surgery heart, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a revenge story in the tradition of Greek myth (specifically the myth of Iphigenia, which is name-dropped in the third act and is where the film gets its title).
Instead of focusing on the mechanics of vengeance, Deer wants to invoke an emotive response from its audience, an empathetic one: if you were to find yourself in an equally improbable, inconceivable situation, could you make an impossible choice or would you end up just spinning in circles?