Yorgos Lanthimos's follow-up to 2015's truly fantastic -- and weird and disturbing -- The Lobster, leans much more into the uniquely horrifying. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is similarly odd in tone, but less like an alternate reality, even though all the characters have this largely static, deadpan delivery.
This is more like a Sophie's Choice for the 21st century, repackaged as vengeance rather than spite. The thing is, young Martin (a brilliantly unsettling Barry Keoghan) thinks of it not as vengeance, but as justice. It's easy to endure the tensions of this movie and wonder what the point of it was. What masochist would put themselves through a story like this? Well, I did. And it does bring to light how thin the line between vengeance and justice can really be.
Still, it can be difficult to decide how to feel about The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Martin has been hanging out with surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), who we eventually learn was the surgeon working on Martin's father when he died on the operating table. We never get any explanation of how Martin has this power -- apparently it's beside the point -- but when Steven's youngest child, Bob (Sunny Suljic), suddenly loses all feeling in his legs, Martin takes responsibility. Not only that, but he tells Steven that since he killed a member of his family, he must kill a member of his own family as well. If he does not, then one by one, his two children, as well as his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), will in turn suffer the same paralysis, then be incapable of eating, and then as soon as their eyes start bleeding, that will mean they are hours from death. The only way this can be prevented is by killing one of them outright -- hence, of course, the film's title.
And that's just the premise. The script is the weakest element here, but to its credit, over and over it moves beyond where other movies would go with its mysteries. This is not a movie where what's going on is kept secret from its characters until the very end. Surprisingly early on, Anna, Bob and teenage Kim (Raffey Cassidy) are all fully aware of what's going on. Like The Lobster, this film has some dark humor, although it doesn't indulge in it nearly as much. Ther's a darkly funny scene in which the siblings sadistically needle each other about which of them will be chosen to be killed.
It's difficult to describe this movie without making it seem just pointlessly weird. It has a deeply unsettling tone to it, camera shots slowly pulling out of or tightening in to images of beautiful composition. This happens whether it's near a large tree in a yard at sunset or in the corridors of a hospital. And here we have a middle-aged, married couple, grappling with the choice between choosing death for just one of them, or certain death for all of them. All except for Steven, who is assured he must live with the consequences either way.
The performances, the often oddly deadpan delivery notwithstanding, are solid all around. Nicole Kidman can convey an astonishing amount with just a sustained shot of her face with no dialogue. And Alicia Silverstone appears briefly as Martin's mother, quite literally unrecognizable: I saw her name in the credits and was taken aback: Wait, what? Where was Alicia Silverstone? She was in Martin's house, trying to seduce Steven by awkwardly sucking on his fingers.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer exists in a world much closer to our actual reality than did The Lobster, but still consistently feels vaguely otherworldly, even when characters are not getting ailments that local medical professionals are incapable of explaining. Yorgos Lanthimos has a knack for injecting just a dash of the supernatural, giving his world a sense of subtle yet disturbing wonder. He is a truly singular writer and director.
Perhaps he's singular to an excessively stark degree, for some. This is a film that will stick with you, but depending on who you are and what kind of tolerance you have for the specific, genuine psychological horrors it has to offer, it could stick with you in unwanted ways. And the end is slightly disappointing, having left me thinking, Um . . . okay? This movie left me incapable of being any more precise than that.