Mysteriously, almost maddeningly cool, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” exists to give you the chills. Its eerie first shot is an extended close-up of open-heart surgery. After that negative note, things in this heartless drama get much worse.
Exercising his disturbing vision like a scalpel, brilliant Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos transforms the orderly life of a prominent cardiologist into a nightmare of suffering stripped of any mercy. An amazingly weird assemblage of notions from Greek mythology and concepts from pessimistic geniuses like Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski and Michael Haneke, the film creates something akin to a dreadful dream.
Colin Farrell, who played a portly wallflower in Lanthimos’ “The Lobster,” the darkest science fiction romantic comedy of all time, stars once again. He is trim and dapper here as Steven, a Cincinnati surgeon at the top of his professional game. Walking the big hospital’s sterile corridors with aloof confidence, he’s the sort of specialist who seems faultless.
Yet, almost from the first instant, the film quietly sows seeds of doubt. One of the first images of Steven shows him after that realistic, worrying heart operation, peeling off his blood-spattered latex gloves and dropping them out of sight in the trash like evidence hidden at a crime scene. Add to that his detached, impersonal conversation about wristwatches with his anesthesiologist colleague as they stroll an endless, antiseptic hospital hallway in an ominous wide shot, and a virtually subconscious impression of suspicion begins to taint our sense of who Steven is and how much we can trust him.
That contamination spreads as we watch Steven in an odd relationship with 16-year-old Martin (“Dunkirk’s” Barry Keoghan), the son of a man who died after visiting his operating theater. As they sit face to face in a diner, Farrell subtly shows us that Steven lacks the supreme confidence he feels in his professional element. Speaking to Martin, there’s less authority in his voice, an awkward effort to establish an arm’s-length rapport less intimate than the close relationship the boy is seeking.
Is Martin stalking him? Is Steven trying to buy his silence – with a wildly expensive wristwatch – to conceal some secret they share? How will Martin react when Steven begins to neglect him?
Little in the film’s foreboding first act is what you might think, including Steven’s tranquil, prosperous home life with his physician wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman). It’s clear that the couple face problems as Kidman channels the damaged emotional and sexual timbre of her haunting performance in “Eyes Wide Shut.” Their suburban mansion is beautiful, immaculate but as icy as their distant relationship to their well-behaved daughter Kim and son Bob (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic).
Martin, always polite but uncomfortable keeping others in extended eye contact, begins moving into their domestic lives. Kim feels attracted, but Martin, who has sought the children’s friendships to help him complete an unspoken mission, insists that they remain platonic and pure. It’s his goal to take hold of or deliver a mysterious abstraction concerning the idyllic family. When he announces his prize as “justice,” it gives us the sense of having fallen down a rabbit hole on our way to a surreal and sinister landing.
This is a startling, difficult film. It can’t be watched easily, and though it doles out blasts of pitch-black humor, it shouldn’t be examined casually. Stylishly polished with slow camera moves, scored with somber pieces ranging from Schubert to Gyorgy Ligeti, the film follows Steven’s misery attentively. His fate is observed as if he were an arrogant adventurer in a Greek tragedy, being tortured by the gods.
The story’s cultural roots are clearly announced when Kim’s school principal praises her report on the myth of Iphigenia, whose father suffered the gods’ fury for killing a sacred deer. By the time Steven reaches the breaking point, the film has examined the limits of the human soul as closely as Steven began it by probing the human heart.