Imagine a remake of Cape Fear shot like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with Max Cady recast as a child, and you’ll have some idea of the strangeness of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It was one of the most divisive titles at this year’s Cannes festival, thanks to its delirious story and aggressively arty stylization — and it’s sure to continue to divide audiences now that it’s finally coming out. It’s the kind of picture where emotions are almost (almost) always played in cool, deadpan fashion — even as characters’ lives collapse around them — and narrative logic is strained until it goes fully absurd.
But I was mostly charmed (is that the word?) by this poisoned curio, in which brilliant heart surgeon Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) is told by Martin (Barry Keoghan), the young, troubled son of a patient who died at the doctor’s hands, that he must choose one family member to sacrifice in order to save the others. A sudden, mysterious illness has already robbed Stephen’s young son Bob (Sunny Suljic) of the use of his legs, and Martin says that the boy’s death is imminent unless Stephen makes a choice. Teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) soon becomes afflicted as well, and Martin assures everyone that Stephen’s wife (Nicole Kidman) will be next. How is Martin making this happen? Can he be stopped? These are questions for another movie. In Lanthimos’ oracular world, the boy’s power is total and unquestioned. And Keoghan (who demonstrated his remarkable range in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk earlier this year) walks a perfect line between awkward teen and metaphysical force.
Like all good parables, the premise of Sacred Deer has flexibility. You can read any number of political, historical or religious overtones into it: broken children claiming a blood debt from those responsible for their agony, and the sacrifices that have to be made in return. And the director knows how to weave a spell, with his impeccably symmetrical frames, his precise camera moves, his careful blocking of actors, his sudden crashes of classical music. Does it feel a little like he’s borrowing too much from The Shining at points? Sure, but if you’re going to steal, you might as well steal from the best. Plus, Lanthimos’ formal approach makes narrative and thematic sense: He crafts a cinematic world that can support his otherworldly scenario, while also creating genuine suspense.
For a while, at least. For most of its running time, Sacred Deer works as a series of actions and emotions and attitudes that, while taken to symbolic extremes, still feel vaguely rooted in recognizable reality. But as things spin out of control, getting ever stranger, I started to wonder if the director had merely written himself into a corner and was doubling down on weirdness to get himself out. And yet the film never quite loses its mythic drive. You walk out feeling like you’ve truly had an experience.