I desperately want to love Yorgos Lanthimos’ films. His caustic, often disturbing style shows shades of Stanley Kubrick a la A Clockwork Orange and the best moments of both The Lobster and The Killing of A Sacred Deer are flat out brilliant. That makes it all the more painful when his stories veer off into indulgent nonsense in their back halves. Lobster’s flat-out brilliant first half ultimately redeemed that film, but Deer’s momentum completely relies on waiting for a payoff that ultimately rings as hollow as it is uninspired.
The brunt of the film centers on the relationship between Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and Martin (Barry Keoghan), the mentally disturbed son of a former patient who passed away on the operating table. While their late afternoon smoking sessions initially seem harmless enough, Martin begins to become dangerously fixated on Steven’s wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two kids (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic). Suddenly, the children begin to fall ill and according to Martin, the only way to prevent their deaths along with Anna’s is to kill one of them in cold blood.
Lanthimos’ devilish direction carries a large portion of this film on its back. His off-kilter shot compositions are deeply unsettling. His wides are taken from strange angles, often putting us in the corner of whatever room we’re in, gazing at our characters like insects on a wall. This intentional isolation of the audience, along with a teeth grinding orchestral soundtrack, gives the film an otherworldly feel that is only extenuated by its strange characters.
Farrell might’ve been born to deliver Lanthimos’ didactic dialogue. His deadpan delivery of the intentionally awkward and rhythmic lines is perfectly measured. Steven is a repressed stress ball, slowly being squeezed throughout as he gets pushed towards making his awful decision. Farrell deftly navigates this arc, making each stilted, blunt word somehow feel completely natural. However, Keoghan is the undeniable standout. Somehow, he manages to feel alien in a world where every character is a bit inhuman. He flushes the humanity out of his face, giving every line a nauseating spin. Even when he’s talking about something as benign as eating spaghetti, he’s disturbing. Martin is one of the year’s most despicable antagonists, and Keoghan makes a meal out of it. Unfortunately, while Kidman is also solid, she’s clearly not as comfortable as Farrell and Keoghan. She’s a far more naturalistic performer, making her feel out of place in Lanthimos’ off-center world. It doesn’t help that Anna feels slightly underwritten, mainly existing to react to all of the madness happening with Steven.
Unfortunately, all of the atmosphere and great performances in the world can’t make up for a weak narrative, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer ultimately doesn’t have much to say. When it starts to really lean into dark territory, scenes start to go off the rails without serving the themes in any way. Moments such as Farrell’s monologue recounting a childhood trauma never feel particularly motivated. They’re just tossed in to be weird and dark, with the film even lazily stating to the audience that what we’re looking at is meant to be a metaphor.
A metaphor for what, though? The destruction of a nuclear family? The anxieties of somebody who works with humans as if they are animals? The mental illness of teenagers? It’s hard to say because none of these threads end up meshing together in any cohesive way. Lanthimos builds to a conclusion that feels arbitrary and unearned, with the emotional ramifications falling utterly flat.
Watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer is like looking at a massive mural that is half drawn in crayon. It has admirable ambition and some impeccable craftsmanship but falls completely short as a story. It’s also a little too long and exhausting to stand as a mood piece, leaving Lanthimos in an odd middle ground between auteurism and smut. Hopefully, he can reconcile the weaker elements of his films next time around and deliver something as holistically fantastic as the best parts of Lobster and Deer. Until then, the sacred dear being sacrificed is your time.