Spoiler Alert: The following contains light plot spoilers for Yorgos Lanthimos' "The Killing of a Sacred Deer."
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (Lanthimos, 2017), colors outside the lines of the revenge film formula. The film follows a surgeon and his family as misfortune befalls their idyllic suburban life.
As the film opens, we see the surgeon, Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), has taken to looking after Martin (Barry Keoghan), a teenage boy who appears to see Farrell as a foster father. But Martin seems not to understand the role of personal boundaries. He begins to worm his way deeper into the Murphy family's lives, and it’s not until halfway through the film that we learn why.
Murphy is a heart and lung surgeon (who smokes). His wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), is an ophthalmologist who regards the world through narrowed eyes. They live in a mansion in Cincinnati with their clever and imperfect children, Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy).
The viewer quickly sees that the Murphys live an elegant and quiet life. Farrell looks strikingly dignified as a heart surgeon. Of course, as America’s favorite Irishman, an alcohol-clouded past haunts his character’s present.
Nonetheless, his role as Steven Murphy is a sure departure from the days of “In Bruges” and a mature follow-up to “The Lobster.”
And Kidman, so poised as the statuesque wife and mother in films like “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Stoker,” once again ices the screen with her frozen glare.
We meet Martin in the first scene. He wears stained t-shirts and ill-fitting jeans, and stands in visual contrast to Steven and his family, a subtle forewarning of their eventual conflict. His presence slowly darkens the Murphys’ lives.
One common thread: the characters all speak in the same slow, stilted manner to one another that characterizes a Lanthimos film. They communicate in flat, general terms, using “things” and “stuff” as often as we do in everyday conversation, but their stiff demeanor intentionally makes the audience feel uneasy and out of place.
The pace is measured but never dull. Lanthimos builds the intensity with slow, consistent zoom-ins from scene to scene; you know the film is close to its end when the scenes start to move further away rather than closer.
The music, mostly high-pitched strings and choral arrangements, also builds a sense of imminent disaster.
At Martin’s request, Kim sings Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” as she leans alone against a tree. The effect of the vapid pop lyrics, stripped down to a 14-year-old’s vocals, makes the simple and catchy song quite eerie.
Bluish lights in a bare city traversed by motorcycle, secret cigarette habits and love-clouded judgment make you empathize with Kim. She reminds us of new, immature love, the type for which you sacrifice your own best interests, often for the sake of a hardhearted crush.
One surprise: the most bizarre Alicia Silverstone (“Clueless”) cameo you’ll ever see (promise).
Seldom in contemporary film do we see something with such composure that is so emotionally affecting. The drama of the film is understated, but that makes you feel the intensity of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” in your gut all the more.
The film deftly challenges our conceptions of blame, but poses the “eye for an eye” solution as the inevitable response to suffering and injustice. This limitation sets the stage for the blackhearted story.
Pitting family members against one another, shattering senses of solidity and trust — this is what Lanthimos’ films do best. Here, you can be certain that you’ll find another brilliant work of art. But proceed with caution.