When The Killing Of A Sacred Deer first starts, we get a glimpse of a beating heart being operated on with an ominous choir singing in the background. Right then and there, it becomes evident that the film will be a particular kind of experience. While Sacred Deer is a film with a traditional linear narrative, for the most part, it is more of an experience. It is an experimental nightmare that dares you to enter and piece the puzzle together. While you’re watching, you’re trying to figure out what kind of film you’re even seeing which makes The Killing Of A Sacred Deer an experience that is challenging and audacious yet almost rewarding.
The story of The Killing Of A Sacred Deer involves a heart surgeon named Steven (Colin Farrell) who takes a teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan) under his wing. But because Martin’s father died while under surgery at the accidental hands of Steven, Martin slowly starts to take revenge on Stephen by making his children sick. The only way that it can be reversed is if Stephen takes the life of his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) or one of his two children, Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy).
Interestingly, even with the synopsis, it still isn’t made clear what exact genre the film falls under. Is it a horror film? Is it some kind of religious tragicomedy? There are elements of horror like the synopsis and the Kubrickian score. But at the same time, the feud between Stephen and Martin could still be a representation of the duality between God and the Devil or the Greek myth of Iphigenia who was sacrificed by her father, King Agamemnon, to put an end to the Trojan War.
Even if it is meant to be the idea, it doesn’t have a clear point that it wants to get across unlike the previous two films by writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos: Dogtooth and his English-language debut, The Lobster. Dogtooth was a darkly funny critique on the way parents condition their children while The Lobster was a dystopian satire about the societal pressures of dating. But the message of The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is more open to interpretation which admittedly, can be frustrating for some viewers. It also won’t help that the film is a tad too long at about two hours and there are moments that are rather aimless.
To make the experience more ambiguous, the characters don’t always react to particular situations in ways that one would expect. For example, when Anna goes over to Martin’s house to ask why he is tormenting her and her children, rather than act in a state of panic or concern, she speaks with a calm yet sly smile as she asks why her and her family are paying for her husband’s mistakes. That particular scene is made effective thanks to Nicole Kidman who, even with just a glance, captures her character’s reluctant yet morbid curiosity.
The rest of the actors are tremendous as well. Colin Farrell, who previously collaborated with writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos on The Lobster, is brilliantly textured as Steven, speaking in a fast-paced diction to demonstrate Steven’s sudden fear and his stubborn arrogance. His Steven knows that he messed up when Martin’s father died but is still unwilling to accept responsibility for his actions, resulting in his slow downfall. Alicia Silverstone has only one scene as Martin’s mother who tries making sexual advances on Steven but even she manages to create a rich characterization with her rapid eye movements and has one of the year’s funniest line readings involving dessert tart. In retrospect, one of the few flaws the film has is the fact that she isn’t on screen more.
However, as terrific as all those actors are, the film singlehandedly belongs to Barry Keoghan as Martin. Keoghan is creepy and gets under your skin yet is completely unassuming in how evil he is. He is dry and deadpan which only makes every scene he appears in more unsettling because you’re unsure what his next move might be. It’s also a complete 180 from his earlier turn in Dunkirk as the idealistic sailor boy George, proving that he is a talent to take note of.
The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is not the most pleasant film. It’s uncomfortable to the point where you might not listen to Ellie Goulding music the same way again and a shot of blood dripping can be paralyzing. But it is still an ambiguous masterpiece. Its meaning may not be obvious. But that’s why it’s up for audiences to enter the nightmare and figure it out themselves.