Few films over the last few years broke my heart as badly at The Lobster. For a good hour or so I was there, mouth agape, loving every moment of the surreal and delicious world being presented. The absurdity amazed, the surrealism surprised, and it all felt like the very tenets of cinematic expression were being twisted into some magical and irrepressible form. Then it all went to shit.
So, it was with well-founded hesitation that I approached Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest, the provocatively titled Killing of a Sacred Deer. Once again a world that feels somewhat sideways is being painted, and once again Colin Farrell is at the heart of the madness.
Farrell plays Steven, a surgeon “with beautiful hands” who forms an unlikely bond with Martin (Barry Keoghan). The mystery of their relationship provides most of the film’s psychological tension, so it would be unfair to spoil it, other than to point out that on one level the film works like Night of the Hunter and on another it’s a bleak, Monty Pythonesque comedy. Steven’s relationship with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and children Bob (Sunn Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy) is tested when they succumb to a mysterious illness.
From there the film turns into part thriller, part psychological drama, part farce. The dryness of dialogue is deliberate, a kind of meandering tone that is as monochromatic as the walls of the hospital or austere home of the Murphys. This provides both an unsettling nature but also a highly performative one, emphasizing the theatricality of the entire enterprise.
In fact, the somewhat florid title speaks to the sense of greater myth at play, Lantimos drawing upon archaic mythology to tease out his story line. When the film treads this line between archetype and bemusement it’s actually quite a lot of fun, trading on cliché to nudge the audience one way or another. A bearded Farrell attenuates his performance wonderfully, creating a dark bond with Martin that’s both convincing and unsettling.
Yet in the end the ambitions of the film feel slight, the moral quandary slightly downplayed by the stylistic starkness. Where The Lobster reached for the heights and came crashing down, here we have something that aims lower and gets there, and while that may be superficially more satisfying it’s also hardly as nourishing as it could be. As a creepy, comical film with a baroque ending The Killing of a Sacred Deer does what it sets out to do, but that might not be enough to truly gain fans for this quirky yet likely forgettable piece from Lanthimos.