Opening with an extended close-up of open-heart surgery, it then retreats to find clinical, off-kilter perspectives from there on out as Steven (Colin Farrell), a surgeon, goes about his ordered life with his optometrist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two children, Kim and Bob (Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic).
Also in the mix is 16-year-old Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of one of Steven’s patients who died during surgery. Declaring he wishes to himself be a heart surgeon, Martin meets regularly with Steven for pie and chat. There’s a hint of We Need to Talk about Kevin’s troubled protagonist in Martin’s narrow eyes and lank hair, though his interactions with Steven and his family are always polite.
Peculiarly polite. Painstakingly polite. But then all of the social interactions in The Killing of a Sacred Deer are such, with colleagues, friends and even family members addressing one another in stilted, formal, almost monotone sentences, their precious words punctuated by hesitations to give Christopher Walken... well, pause. Disconcerting repetitions and Thimios Bakataki’s clenched, ear-piercing score only accentuate the weirdness.
Sure enough, these strangely sinister atmospherics are leading up to a dark turn of events, and the last half-hour of Lanthimos’ idiosyncratic offering is both bracingly uncomfortable and blackly funny, wringing from viewers the kind of thin, high-pitched squeals of laughter that must be tamped straight back down for fear of looking like one sick puppy.
Like Dogtooth, The Killing of a Sacred Deer operates on the outer limits of the horror genre, and like The Lobster, there is a tinge of sci-fi flavouring to its curious camera placements, polished visuals and skewed sensibilities – it’s hard not to think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives or Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin as you view the characters’ jarring interactions, the unforgiving morality in play and the pristine psychosis on display.
Farrell and Kidman (who’s really having quite the year), meanwhile, give themselves completely to Lanthimos’ vision, fearlessly inhabiting scenes that give voice to ugly thoughts and hint at deviant sexual practices. You might say their commitment is whole-hearted.