I remember being shown a video at school in which all the water was removed from various foodstuffs, and the dry, unrecognisable remains were shown. Yorgos Lanthimos is a bit like the scientists in that video. He is a cinematic chemist, draining the emotion from familiar genres and examining what is left behind. In his previous film The Lobster, Lanthimos synthesised a romance devoid of feeling and highlighted the absurd rituals that populate love and relationships. Now, with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, he has done the same for the revenge thriller. When the catharsis and sympathy are removed from this most ancient of tales, what we’re left with is dark, uneasy, and hysterically absurd.
Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a heart surgeon who lives a perfect, orderly life. He has a big house, is married to the beautiful Anna (Nicole Kidman), has two beautiful children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), and a dog. However, something isn’t quite right. On the periphery of Steven’s life lurks Martin (Barry Keoghan), a young boy with an unexplained connection to Steven. Steven meets Martin surreptitiously, in diners and by the river; buys him expensive gifts; and lies to colleagues when they see him and the boy together. Something’s going on, but we’re not sure what. When Steven’s children fall ill with a mysterious, undiagnosed illness, it becomes clear that Martin, and the nature of his relationship with Steven, has something to do with it.
What follows is a slow, agonising descent into surreal domestic madness. This is underpinned, or undermined – or perhaps both – by the actors’ delivery. Lanthimos has his performers speak in the same dull monotone he had them employ in The Lobster. It’s a bizarre, stilted drone that makes everything sound like a mere mundanity, whether it’s comparing the water resistance of watches, mentioning a daughter’s recent menstruation, or discussing the logical merits of killing a child. Lanthimos’ screenplay (written with frequent collaborator Efthymis Filippou) and his actors’ performances blend the banal, the absurd, and the horrifying into a single uncomfortably hilarious miasma of uneasiness.
And The Killing of a Sacred Deer is hilarious. In fact, it’s hysterical, in something resembling the now defunct meaning of the word. We feel compelled, against our will, to laugh. We can’t help it. We can’t help but laugh when Steven casually mentions to a friend that his daughter has just started menstruating, or when he gives a brief and spectacularly inappropriate monologue on ejaculation. We are powerless to stop the guilty giggles when, in the film’s later stages, we watch Steven’s children drag themselves around the house on their hands and elbows. And the climax, the culmination of this surreal tragedy, is a deliciously, childishly appalling piece of slapstick at which I really, genuinely could not control myself. I had to laugh. It was the only response that made any sense.
Abhorrence and aversion could also make sense, I suppose. Like Aronofsky’s mother!, Lanthimos’ film subsumes elements of the horror genre, juxtaposing them hideously with its absurdist humour. The music cues are culled from suitably gothic ecclesiastical pieces, and some juddering nightmarish soundscapes. Lanthimos’ camera, seemingly mimicking Kubrick’s in The Shining, prowls through hallways and corridors. An exquisitely composed overhead shot, it too reminiscent of Kubrick’s horror, also gives a sense of an impartial observer, some distant cosmic voyeur watching these events unfold but failing to grasp their true emotional impact.
The cast is game, embracing Lanthimos’ peculiar vision. In Colin Farrell, with whom Lanthimos worked with on The Lobster, the director has found his own De Niro, an actor who has completely bought into his own sensibilities. Kidman is terrific as the doting wife and mother who discovers, too late, that she does have a spine. Alicia Silverstone is barely recognisable as Martin’s lonely hearts mother, as she spearheads the film’s most skincrawlingly awkward scene. The real standout, though, is Barry Keoghan, who you might remember as Dunkirk’s naive and over-eager George. Martin shares a little of that naivete, but it occasionally, and disturbingly, switches places with a mature, commanding authority that presents Martin as less a character than an agent of fate, of destiny, of justice. Which is fitting, given that the film’s title (and arguably much of its plot) is lifted from a Greek tragedy, fraught with divine retribution.
Don’t be fooled by any classical origins. This isn’t a time-tested examination of the human condition. There are no profound insights into the soul of mankind to be found here. This is an absurdist revenge thriller. Lanthimos, experimenter of the surreal, has wrenched all pathos and passion from the genre and presented us with his results. Bereft of emotional content, what is left? A despairingly, hilariously arbitrary depiction of justice, that’s what. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is delirious and uncomfortable viewing, with a pulsing vein of humour as black as bile and dried blood. Fantastically, disgustingly absurd, it makes the The Lobster look like a warm romantic comedy by comparison.