Deadpan is the first word that comes to mind when describing Yorgos Lanthimos' THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. Much like the performers in his last film THE LOBSTER, Lanthimos' latest effort showcases a similar droll demeanor in every character. While this style served as an amusing juxtaposition to the absurdity in the former film, here a general lack of enthusiasm and gesticulation sets a more menacing tone that builds until the final jarring crescendo. It's pretty refreshing to watch a film that maintains a certain tonal monotone throughout while continuing to ratchet up the pressure, and THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER challenges convention without dipping too far into the bizarre.
The story begins with Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a seemingly emotionless cardiologist who is engaging in a strange relationship with a teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan). Though it is impossible not to jump to the most salacious conclusion, it appears that their regular rendezvous, though strange, is completely innocent. Apparently, Steven was the cardiac surgeon who operated on Martin's deceased father when he passed away on the operating table, and he has taken it upon himself to look after the kid by offering him money, gifts, and support from time to time. When Martin starts to get a bit too clingy, Steven attempts to distance himself from the situation- which doesn't sit well with Martin. From here, their acquaintance takes an alarming turn as the teen somehow afflicts the good doctor's family with a mysterious curse that can only be lifted by an unthinkable act of sacrifice.
To say that the film is quietly captivating is a major understatement. Lanthimos takes his usual dry, straightforward dialogue style and uses it this time to gently bump up the tension as the story progresses. While some people may find his particular brand of stone faced discourse off-putting, it totally works in this case to convey a level of unease that propels the plot forward in each and every exchange. Of course the incredibly jarring sound sound design definitely aids in accentuating the ever increasing tenseness on screen. Though I found it to be a bit much at times, I can't deny that it succeeds in eliciting the anxiety that I'm sure Lanthimos is going for.
Colin Farrell once again shines in another powerful, yet understated performance. His character is an analytical type who follows logic to a fault, and Farrell packs a wallop of restrained emotion just under the surface throughout the troubling story. Nicole Kidman perfectly captures the quiet desperation of a mother left helpless in the face of unknown doom. Though her character is a respected doctor as well, Kidman's take on the harried matriarch maintains an air of dangerous determination that helps illustrate the extremes she will go to in order to protect her brood. The real star of the show here, however, is Barry Keoghan as the young Martin. Never before has such a subdued portrayal felt so menacing. Though Keoghan keeps it simple with his approach to the teen, it's the matter-of-fact delivery that truly makes the whole situation extremely unsettling. Just when you think that the kid might just be a bit dull, Keoghan's nuanced performance slowly reveals that the wheels are indeed turning as the chilling plot thickens.
I don't want to get too spoiler-y here, so I'll keep it light on the details. What I can say, though, is that fans of Lanthimos' dry trademark approach will revel in this particular marriage of style and substance. Visually, the film aptly contrasts shots of endless, sterile hospital hallways and stark rooms with the warmth and luxurious comfort of the family's abode, and many shots are layered with visual cues that mirror the complexity of the story. What appears to be clean and sterile or even safe and tranquil on the surface is merely a facade that hides an ugliness to be slowly revealed. What is most impressive, however, is how far this film goes in terms of psychological horror when so many times these types of films stop just short of truly going for it.
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER opens in theaters on October 20th, and an can't recommend it enough. Stay tuned for my interview with Barry Keoghan later on in the fest.
aka Annette Kellerman