FOLLOWING the success with their first collaboration The Lobster, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos and Colin Farrell reteam for The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an uncomforting and often disturbing morality tale that stands out as one of the year’s most original and intelligent works.
It opens with, randomly, the close-up of open heart surgery, revealing the occupation of the main character Steven (Farrell). After a post-surgery conversation about watches with his colleague, we then see him in a cafe with the mysterious Martin (Barry Keoghan)a 16-year old boy who appears to have an unusual relationship with him.
Steven is married to Anna (Nicole Kidman) and they have two children, teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and their younger son Bob (Sunny Suljic) and appear to live a typically settled family life.
The relationship is ordinary enough for Martin to be invited to meet with members of the family, and at one point, Steven is persuaded to meet Martin’s mother. But following on from a peculiar incident, it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems with the surgeon and his considerably younger friend.
As events progress, a revelation is discovered which leads to territory that threatens the safety of Steven’s family and will have certainly life-changing consequences for those involved.
Having made a name for himself internationally with his polarizing Greek parables Dogtooth and Alps and establishing himself with English-speaking audiences with The Lobster, Lanthimos has made the inevitable move to America, with co-funding from the UL and Ireland. The end result is an often frightening psychological examination that is possibly his best film to date.
From its unique opening scene, Lanthimos succeeds at creating a feeling of unease once too frequently with his distinct use of sound and camera angles adding to a direction that is the strongest aspect of the film. Just the revealing of the title card brings a slight shiver down the spine, quickly suggesting this foray into horror will indeed have an effect.
Soundtrack is crucial to the effect with a diverse range from Bach to Kim’s use of Ellie Goulding music adding to the film’s sense of different soundtracks contributing to the feel of respective sense
There are times where one is reminded of the more eerie sequences from Kubrick’s The Shining and scenes often play on the same level in the most uncomforting scenes from the films of Michael Haneke and Nicolas Roeg.
The script is peppered with moments of dark humour, often entering into territory that few directors would have the guts to even imply let alone divulge in the way we see. In one particular sequence, Steven attempts to reason with his son by sharing a secret about himself in exchange for vice versa, with his being related to his sexual awakening, making for a somewhat awkward but carefully handled scene.
The script itself feels like having enough pedigree to earn Lanthimos a second Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, with the element of mystery deepening and the sense of unpredictably all but apparent.
The timing of the film is another highlight, given how enough space is given to know the characters before the unravelling of what it is about the relationship between Steven and Martin. The twist itself is plausible and that then creates a cycle where fear persists and becomes crucial to sustaining the interest as it builds to its horrifying finale. Such is the intense and provocative nature, this would have probably fitted under the term’video nasty’ had it been made in the 1970s.
The fact that there are so many multiple questions asked as the film progresses is what makes this succeed as a genuinely gripping, intense piece. The fact that questions appear to be answered rather than leaving them ambiguous makes one leave with a sense of closure rather than frustration, a trait that Lanthimos has been guilty of in the past. In fact, as the film progresses, one worries that they may recur especially given the direction of where the film heads, making us thankful that the director ends the story the way he does, in spite of its grim nature.
Performance-wise, Farrell has rarely been this good. There was a time not long ago where a film with his name attached to it suggested a lack of eagerness to see it, yet with help from Lanthimos directing, he has reinvented himself as a watchable actor. With a mix of deadpan approach to delivery and moments of gradual frustration, Farrell looking older than his 40 years with his greying beard is key to the viewer remaining interested even when focusing on scenes that are not as essential to the plot as others.
As Martin, fellow Irish actor Barry Keoghan plays the role with chilling calmness as his motives are slowly made clear, making him one of the more sinister villains in contemporary cinema. Recently seen in Dunkirk, one would not be surprised in future to see him in a decade from now just as much in a leading status as Farrell.
With a story and performances just as solid as its direction, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a rare highlight of American-set cinema that also makes life challenging for its director to follow creatively with his next project.