The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens with a heart undergoing surgery, set to a classical number by Franz Schubert. It’s operatic in the face of operation, a surgeon enamoured with his craft (we later discover that this filters into the bedroom - his wife, played by Nicole Kidman, sprawled across the bed to mimic an unconscious patient.) The rest of the runtime isn’t as overtly squirmish, but nevertheless makes for uncomfortable, absorbing viewing, a defiant picture that totters between the borders of dark comedy and simply just dark.
This surgeon, a bearded-up Colin Farrell, may be dedicated to his profession, but one mistake - a patient he could have saved - made a few years ago has come back to haunt him. Heck, it may not have even been his fault, but for whatever divine reason, he must be the one to pay. Or rather, those closest to him - a well-to-do family who seem - seem - to get on just fine. Of course, this family is deconstructed and terrorised through the remainder of the film, their dysfunctions laid bare. Favouritism morphs from the idea of equality (Kidman talks to a colleague about her son’s piano lessons, so Farrell tries to provide balance by mentioning that his daughter has started menstruating) to a matter of life and death. This is a nuclear family picked apart, deconstructed and exaggerated, a foray into the uncanny valley that refuses to come out the other side.
Their misfortune has something to do with another boy, played by Dunkirk's Barry Keoghan. At first his relationship with Farrell’s surgeon is unassuming, almost amicable. He’s introduced to Farrell’s family, buys them small, tacky presents. Yet there’s a definite unease to the dynamic. Farrell seems to be lying about their relationship, director Lanthimos’ trademark deadpan intentionally insincere. Almost midway into The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Keoghan’s role rears its ugly head. His father is the patient whose life was lost at the latex-cladded hands of Farrell, and now it’s his turn to play God. Its title may allude to Greek mythology, but there’s a smattering of the Old Testament in play here, as Keoghan takes the ‘an eye for an eye’ conceit (or in his case, ‘a chunk of arm for a chunk of arm’) to the extreme.
With all the horror on display, it could’ve been easy for The Killing of a Sacred Deer to lose its distinct sense of humour. Not for Lanthimos, whose queasy blend of situational comedy and psychological horror provokes, well, reaction at least. At times, you don’t know whether to laugh or shriek. At times, you do both. The comedy mustered is similar to his previous, The Lobster, but improved upon, losing the try-hard surrealism and gaining a greater understanding of how to intertwine the bloody and the bloody hilarious.
The film’s great defining centerpiece near the end of the runtime epitomises this: what’s being carried out is definitively horrifying, and yet, here we have Colin Farrell spinning around with a bag over his head. The Kubrickian staging certainly serves Lanthimos; intentions well - distorted fish-eye lens capture characters pacing (or crawling) down hallways, an off-kilter depiction of family life in miniature. The score, too, is astonishingly evocative, a ramble of erratic piano keys and whining strings that thunder across the screen. I’ve seen this film twice, and I’ve come out feeling ill, or at least two steps further than unsettled, both times.
At its core, The Killing of a Sacred Deer's plot is straightforward - much more so than you’d expect from Lanthimos. It’s the execution that matters - a revenge tale that seems intent on punishing the audience as much as its victim. It’s an exercise in rupturing family ideals, a nightmarish fever dream that doesn’t make the audience squirm so much as wriggle profusely, burrowing deep into minds through bruising cinematography and orchestrating outrageous scenarios that are so jet-black in their comedy that The Lobster seems like a feel-good rom-com. Heck, you may walk out of a midnight screening thinking that it’s daytime.