Some doctors have a certain style of speaking; when difficult decisions have to be made–sometimes very quickly–calm, authoritative statements can help people make those decisions by seeming to remove uncertainty from the equation. The characters in director Yorgos Lanthimos’s films tend to speak in a consciously unnatural manner anyway but in The Killing of a Sacred Deer he uses medicine as a context, a milieu in which the uncertain and the inexplicable cannot actually be masked or ignored, where responsibility cannot be deferred and where justice and vengeance are primal forces beyond the scope of careful, direct speech and composed exteriors. The film continues Lanthimos’s streak of highly controlled, highly individual works; it demands a great deal of engagement and its rewards depend on one’s willingness to encounter it under the conditions of its own abstracted logic.
The scenario is that of Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a successful heart surgeon who lives with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist in her own right, and their two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) Bob (Sunny Suljic). Steven also has a relationship with an awkward teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan); they meet in diners, Martin visits him at the hospital where he works, he buys the boy expensive presents. The nature of their connection is mysterious at first, but something definitely isn’t quite right. Keoghan is something of a revelation particularly in this opening act, straddling an uncomfortable line between friendliness and menace as the film takes its time bringing Martin, and by extension Steven, into focus.
The conditions that come to drive the plot once Martin’s motives are made clear are left without concrete explanation, giving the film an air of divine inevitability drawn from Classical tragedy. Like Sophocles, Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou are interested in the psychic dissonance of individual pride and illusory control. Steven and his colleagues can casually make life-or-death decisions for others because they can wash their hands of the aftermath–it’s no coincidence that we are introduced to Steven removing bloody gloves after a surgery. Martin, seemingly by his very presence, comes to reveal the hollowness of such confidence; Stephen can’t quite push him away, can’t quite rid himself of the niggling guilt Martin embodies, but neither can he face a crucial decision when he must bear the full weight of its consequence.
Nor does he bear this consequence alone. Kidman has proven reliable tackling difficult roles in highly psychological films (see also: Dogville, Eyes Wide Shut, Stoker, even Margo at the Wedding) and brings that quiet intensity to bear as Anna’s passive mask contorts along with her husband’s and pushes up the degradation inherent in her existence. The children are a little bit more difficult to suss out, particularly Kim; her relationship with Martin once they are introduced is clearly important to the film, but it was difficult to pick apart–one of many reasons the film almost requires a second viewing. In a small but unexpected turn, Alicia Silverstone pops up as Martin’s mother whose unusual deference toward her son adds another complicated wrinkle to the puzzle.
In glancing over other reviews before seeing the film, I saw a few comparisons to the likes of Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke which seem to make sense. Both of those directors are canny at placing the audience in positions of uncomfortable sympathy or moral revulsion (which seems to be what’s happening here), both are fond of situations that are as cruel and absurd as this film’s climactic scene, and both have a deliberate and chilly style that allows no quarter and no shelter from what is being depicted, just as this film is certainly deliberate and chilly. Thimios Bakatakis’s camera is a patient observer in the bright and neatly ordered environments of the hospital and Steven’s home. A dissonant score quietly throbs throughout, but even intense moments are infused with space and silence.
As I mentioned, this is a film that somewhat requires a second viewing. There are threads in it that I feel I still want to follow; for example, there’s a low-key occupation with physical signs of puberty like menstruation and body hair which seem to indicate some kind of thematic function that, at the moment, still feels obscure. But the takeaway here is that that’s the kind of movie this is–one to be pondered and puzzled over, and which may never completely reveal itself. As an experience it’s deeply unsettling to watch, in part because of its frightening ambiguity, so I’m willing to call it successful as an artistic venture. But the slow, artificial, bloodless (metaphorically, although not literally) approach to Agamemnon’s mythological dilemma (the referential title cites the sacrifice of Iphigenia in works by Euripides and Hyginus) could legitimately be a turn-off to viewers looking for something more conventionally frightening.