It’s easy to imagine audiences won’t groove to something as nightmarish, determinedly weird and despairingly funny as The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Fine. Inoffensive remakes, spinoffs, superhero movies and other pablum get released weekly, so go see one of those instead. This one, a kind of horrific black comedy of vengeance, directed and co-written by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster), may not be exactly groundbreaking or original either, but at least it’s done with high style, technical mastery and a singular, highly idiosyncratic vision.
In this bloody, gorgeously and menacingly shot (by frequent Lanthimos collaborator Thimios Bakatakis) and often sadistic cat-and-mouse affair—equal parts Hitchcock, Haneke and Kubrick, with a trashy dash of Adrian Lyne on the side—a bearded Colin Farrell plays an eminent heart surgeon married to accomplished eye surgeon, Nicole Kidman. They and their two gorgeous kids (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic) live in a big, sleek, perfectly perfect house where no one blinks and everyone says terrible banalities in a flat monotone. Sometimes that’s funny, sometimes it’s chilling.
In secret, Farrell takes strolls and lunches with a spooky, oddly formal and possessive young man (Barry Keoghan) with whom he exchanges gifts. Their scenes prickle with unease, tension, even sexual ambiguity. What is their relationship about? Before you can say “psycho in the house,” the young man is revealed as the grieving son of a man who died during heart surgery. He introduces the surgeon to his mother (Alicia Silverstone), telling him that they would make a perfect couple and singing the praises of her sexy body.
What he’s really out for, though, is to exact outrageous, almost biblical-level revenge in the form of a curse he puts on the deceitful surgeon and his family. Every horrifying detail of suffering the young guy describes comes to pass in gory, cruel, punishing scenes that may drive some audiences straight up the wall—or to the nearest exit. Is the young man a devil with dark powers? An evil genius who has learned from the internet how to torture people? In a Lanthimos movie, reality and fantasy, the supernatural and the mundane coexist; there are no explanations.
The performances are uniformly first rate, with Kidman a standout in riding the line between the ridiculous and the sublime. Keoghan, as in Dunkirk, makes quite a mark too, using his snaky gaze and shape-shifting features to suggest menace and heartbreak, malice and decency, and keen intelligence and maladjustment from moment to moment. He unnerves. When things veer toward the super-extreme and melodramatic in the last third, everything gets so provocative and out there that it is becomes easy to imagine The Killing of a Sacred Deer and mother! one day sharing a double-bill. For those who can stand the heat and stick it out until the end, expect memories, images you will never un-see—and maybe some very bad dreams.
Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.