Opening with images of a still-beating heart and blood-stained surgical scrubs before cutting abruptly to a conversation in which two hospital employees discuss the merits of their respective wristwatches, the latest film from director Yorgos Lanthimos feels cut from similar cloth as his last effort, The Lobster. Unsettling imagery is punctuated by characters who engage in banal conversations, with everyone speaking in the flat, emotionless tones that feel less like genuine interactions and more like androids attempting to pass themselves off as humans.
Steven (Colin Farrell) is a cardiologist and a recovering alcoholic, who may or may not have been responsible for the death of a patient some years earlier – a prospect that Steven himself deems impossible. “An anesthesiologist can kill a patient,” he says matter-of-factly. “But a surgeon never can.” Steven is married to an equally successful ophthalmologist (Nicole Kidman), who indulges her husband’s various sexual perversions, which include slipping into a sexy lingerie set and lying motionless on the bed, pretending to be under the effects of general anesthetic.
Steven also has a connection to a teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan). The two meet for lunch in a diner, where Steven presents him with gifts before taking him for a stroll along the waterfront. After a number of clandestine encounters, Steven invites the boy to have dinner with his family, an awkward affair where daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) blurts out the recent arrival of her first period, and younger brother Bob (Sunny Suljic) demands to see the hair under Martin’s arms. An equally uncomfortable dinner takes place the following evening, where a character utters what may be cinema’s most memorable line of the year: “I won’t let you leave until you’ve tried my tart!”
As the nature of Steven’s relationship with Martin is slowly revealed to the audience, he must also contend with a mysterious illness that begins to afflict both of his children, leaving them paralyzed from the waist down. The best medical experts in the country are unable to explain the cause of this malady, but a character with ties to Steven’s past delivers a sinister warning: the disease will soon spread to his wife, and unless Steven selects a member of his family to kill, all three will soon perish.
His past catalog is proof that Lanthimos delights in subverting audience expectation, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer fits perfectly into that same mold. A clear explanation for the events of the film’s second half doesn’t exist, nor does it feel particularly necessary, because there’s something far more unnerving – and in some cases, terrifying – about a scenario in which the rules aren’t clearly defined. Combine this with the director’s trademark affinity for absurdist humor, and we’re left with a disturbing experience that works more often than not, but might have fared better if the characters actually felt like real people.
While obviously a stylistic choice, the vapid conversations and wooden dialogue delivery feel out of place in this context, and some viewers will likely have trouble relating to Steven, Martin or anyone else in the film. Likewise, the incredible amount of dysfunction in the family makes for an interesting character study, but almost impossible to connect with on an emotional level. The Killing of a Sacred Deer feels more accessible than The Lobster, and its narrative isn’t nearly as obtuse, but the inhabitants of this world are no less alien.