Not every supernatural thriller looks like one, and Yorgos Lanthimos’ newest film sneaks its farfetchedness through with a superb use of tone and mood; it is a frightening and unsettling success.
Colin Farrell returns from the Greek director’s underbaked and overpraised The Lobster, playing Steven, a successful cardiologist with an American-dream family. Nicole Kidman is his obliging wife Anna, and their two children are surly but lovable – Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). The film opens with a stunning shot of open heart surgery, laying bare the vulnerability of a patient and, in the prodding and preparation of the surgeons, the sometimes callous nature of their relationship with death and risk.
This relationship is explored by Steven’s fascinating dalliance with a teenage boy, Martin, played with exquisite vulnerability and power by Barry Keoghan. Lanthimos lets the audience work out in time whether their meetings are sinister, and when they are confirmed as such it is not in the manner expected. Martin, initially at Steven’s guilty invitation, ingratiates himself with the surgeon’s family, mounting a careful campaign.
When young Bob falls inexplicably ill, his father plays all his cards to discover the cause – calling in experts from across the country. Anna is a doctor too, but her “medical opinion” is of no interest to her husband; her expertise is not relevant in his view, and she is discarded. Steven is a man capable of extremes, we learn – from his sexual tastes to his ability to rise to bait. But does he deserve what is being inflicted on him? The question has been weighed and decided by young Martin, and is pondered by each member of the family in turn. It stays with viewers, an upsetting unknown.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer unfolds in the style of a Greek tragedy; we, the audience, are told of what will happen relatively early, and sit in disbelief as this rushed prophecy is fulfilled. Lanthimos’s preferred line delivery, stunted and artificial, could undermine this dramatic tone, but instead acts as a different mould. As Steven’s life falls apart, and he begins to contemplate horrifying choices and actions, the film’s off-key miasma comes to choke him and us.
The filming of the two primary locations in the film, Steven’s sprawling house and the hospital where he works, summons archetypal horror tropes. The former becomes an open, characterless lodge, with wooden floors and little ornamentation, alongside an abundance of dark nooks, and a dank and bare basement. The hospital is closer to the hotel from The Shining, all endless-seeming corridors and soulless communal areas; doctors glide around with a serene lack of urgency, and other patients are invisible.
The film is not a horror, though; it defies categorisation but feels most akin to entries like Carrie and The Exorcist – a tightly-executed portrayal of terrifying magic inflicted on a realistic setting. Lanthimos brings brilliance out of his cast, Keoghan in particular, and creates a grim fable to rank with the greats.