The Killing of a Sacred Deer movie review: Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan are superb in darkly funny flick
If Yorgos Lanthimos's films have a unifying theme, it's the depressing contention that civilisation is a water thin veneer. In Dogtooth, two young adults had major problems adjusting to the outside world after being raised in feral isolation by their controlling father; in Alps, bereaved patrons hired actors to play deceased loved ones at a macabre mountain resort; and in Lobster, Colin Farrell played a game of romantic Russian roulette at a retreat for the hopelessly unattached.
That last film was unsettlingly funny, and so, in its way, is The Killing Of A Sacred Deer. Farrell plays Steven, a wealthy and successful surgeon. He has a beautiful wife (Nicole Kidman), and two teenage children, and lives in modest splendour in the suburbs of a homogeneous American city. But something's amiss and Steven has been having clandestine meetings with a jumpy young man called Martin (Barry Keoghan).
He meets Martin for lunch, dispensing lavish gifts and frosty paternal advice, making the viewer wonder if there isn't something seedy afoot. But Steven's relationship with the boy is motivated by guilt, not lust. In a wonderfully audacious opening scene, we watch a beating human heart being operated on: something goes wrong and we later discover that Martin's father was the patient on the table.
Steven was the surgeon and seems prepared to go a long way in terms of atonement. After buying Martin a Swiss watch, Steven invites the polite but watchful young man to his home for dinner. He even smiles indulgently when Martin takes a shine to his teenage daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy).
But fancy gifts and access-all-areas will not suffice for Martin, who is secretly furious with Steven and planning elaborate revenge. When Steven's son Bob (Sunny Suljic) falls suddenly ill, and loses all power in his legs, Martin claims to have caused this mysterious calamity, which will spread like a medieval contagion. And the quietly furious young man then presents Steven with a horrifying Hobson's choice guaranteed to inflict the maximum amount of psychological pain.
Psychological pain is par for the course in Lanthimos's films, which paint a uniformly bleak view of human nature. And even before the trouble starts, there's something slightly off about the surgeon's superficially perfect life. He's cold, withdrawn, and talks in an infuriatingly condescending sing-song manner. Steven's cool with his children, and even makes sexual passion seem depressingly functional: when he and his wife get frisky, he insists she pretends she's an anaesthetised patient before he addresses her.
He's hard to like, but so is everyone else in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, a gorgeously photographed and archly misanthropic film that is also wickedly funny. Time and again you find yourself laughing out loud at something then wondering whether or not you should have. When Steven and his wife attend a glitzy medical ball, a colleague who politely asks after Steven's daughter is proudly told she's just started menstruating. On one level, Sacred Deer is a horror film, especially when the mounting psychological tension boils over into baroque violence towards the end. But it's also a comedy, a hammy pot-boiler with soap-opera flourishes, and a withering satire on how we see ourselves versus who we really are.
Yorgos Lanthimos likes his cast to work exclusively in the present tense of his dramas, without the reassurance of back stories or contexts. This bleak terrain can be hard for actors to function in, but Farrell seems to perfectly understand the constraints of Lanthimos's schemas, and is excellent here as a man who deserves most of what's coming to him.
Nicole Kidman and he worked together brilliantly in Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled, and she complements him again here playing a character who seems more reassuringly human than anyone else. And Keoghan is a revelation as Martin, a nervy and resentful young man who may be more sinned against than sinning, but gave me the absolute creeps.
Films coming soon...
Paddington 2 (Hugh Bonneville, Hugh Grant, Sally Hawkins, Ben Whishaw); The Florida Project (Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Caleb Landry Jones); Professor Marsden And The Wonder Women (Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall); No Stone Unturned.