The opening close-up of a beating heart in an open chest cavity isn’t anywhere near the most disturbing image in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, although it sets an appropriate tone.
The latest from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) is a bizarre tale of guilt and revenge that’s both pretentious and provocative, a haunting character study that’s difficult to embrace but even harder to ignore.
It’s best not to reveal too many plot specifics, other than to say the film follows Steven (Colin Farrell), a renowned brain surgeon who befriends Martin (Barry Keoghan), an inquisitive teenage loner whose father was one of Steven’s patients.
We soon realize why Steven seems hesitant to bond with Martin, whose unassuming demeanor hides more sinister intentions aimed at Steven and his ophthalmologist wife (Nicole Kidman), as well as their two children — a young boy (Sunny Suljic) who contracts a mysterious ailment, and a daughter (Raffey Cassidy) who takes a romantic interest in the strange youngster.
For a hint as to how this plays out, the second half of the film draws parallels to the sacrificial travails of Agamemnon from the Euripedes tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis.
Deliberately paced yet consistently compelling, the strange and unsettling drama creates tension through cloudy motives, moral complexity, uneasy character dynamics, and an ominous orchestral score.
The film aggressively defies convention as secrets are gradually revealed, even sprinkling dark comedy amid the downward spiral for Steven and his family.
Lanthimos keeps his camera moving, often viewing the characters from a distance while favoring tracking shots through long hospital corridors. Combined with the formal and mannered dialogue, and the muted emotions, it intentionally prevents intimacy between the audience and characters. However, the characters and performances are so richly textured that it works anyway. Farrell is wonderfully understated while reteaming with Kidman so soon after The Beguiled.
The film becomes more far-fetched in terms of medical science, even embracing the absurdity in a job where anything short of perfection can have tragic consequences.
Thematically familiar but thrillingly unpredictable, the simmering result isn’t for all tastes. That would hardly bother Lanthimos, whose twisted audacity manifests itself through an exhilarating if polarizing creative vision.