The synopses floating around for “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” billed it simply. It’s about a surgeon who cares deeply for his family and suffers for it. It’s about a doctor and his fraught relationship with this outside, teenage boy.
The film ended up blossoming from family drama into a psychological thriller, and from there, some have even said horror movie.
From the get, viewers are put into a mindset that this movie will be dealing with issues of health, but also humanity. The first shot thrust at us is a waxy, pulsing, real human heart. It also makes sense because our protagonist (a beardy Colin Farrell as Steven Murphy) is a cardiologist.
In the exposition, however, we see flickers of Steven beyond his grisly work life: he’s still straight-laced and detail-oriented, but he knows how to crack jokes. He’s a good person to work with. He’s a tender and attentive father to his kids, Kim and Bob. When it comes to his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), he can be a bit indulgent and hard-headed. Ultimately, he loves her deeply.
He’s a bit kinky in bed, but a taste for the strange is his only vice. There are hardly any signs of things amiss in the Murphy household.
Enter Martin. Every now and then, Steven meets up with Martin (Barry Keoghan) to have a slice of pie at a diner or take a walk by the river. We’re not quite sure what the relationship is here. It seems benign enough. But there are red flags that hint otherwise. Steven doesn’t want Martin turning up at his work. Which isn’t completely unusual, but you can tell that he’s lying when he explains how he met him to his co-workers.
Then, director Yorgos Lanthimos starts dropping breadcrumbs. We know Martin’s father died, but we don’t know how. But that doesn’t matter. It’s clear that Steven is now Martin’s father figure.
And sure, Martin’s a little clingy, a little needy, but you can understand why. It’s not so much that Martin’s from a single-parent household, but his existence seems so much less charmed than that of choir practice and piano lessons and clean haircuts and a beach house.
Steven does invite Martin over for dinner and it seems that maybe he can become a well-received friend of the family.
And then it becomes too much. Martin keeps showing up at the hospital. He lurks in waiting rooms and creeps around the car park. He calls and calls and calls. When Steven does pick up to gently decline meet-up offers, Martin throws fits.
He guilt-trips. He worms his way back into Steven’s life by giving Kim late-night rides home. When Bob falls ill, Martin finds a way to make an appearance.
There’s an edge there that tells you this is more than Martin not understanding social norms. This is about control. Suddenly, explicitly, Martin reveals himself to be more than simply a boy dealing with grief and loneliness. And this is where “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” veers off into dark waters.
You can feel it. You can hear it. The film is largely silent. Its auditory foundation is built on natural sounds: the whirr and pulse of machines, the sprinkle of water hoses, the snipping of wires. When there is music, other than Kim straining to hit some notes in an old Ellie Goulding bop, it’s quite abstract. It’s piano keys being mashed. It’s bows being ground out against cello strings.
Sometimes, you’ll hear a woodwind, but it’s only to underscore fragile moments. I don’t mean fragile as in “delicate.” I mean fragile as in “tenuous,” as in we are witnessing a moment where everything is on the verge of falling apart.
When Kim succumbs to the illness, and Anna is slated to fall victim, too, the film takes on a desperate edge. It’s a matter of innocence up against culpability. It’s about digging through lies and peeling back layers of deception. It’s about acidic guilt. It’s about the secular and sterile being marred by things that don’t quite have a name. Things that are maybe a bit more mythical.
Even before the film reaches its true climax, tensions between Steven and Martin come to a violent head.
There’s a thread of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” that aligns a bit with “Hemlock Grove” and definitely NBC’s “Hannibal.” That being said, the film definitely has more of a pared-down aesthetic.
It flourishes in its unspoken moments. Lanthimos’ stylistic choice, combined with the bursts of music serving as the soundtrack, make “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” a seamlessly tense ride from start to finish.
When I left the cinema, I felt as disturbed as I did when I parted ways with “Mother!” I felt shaky and anxious. And this is the wild part of it all: it’s not so much that I felt like I had lost faith in humanity or mankind’s capacity for goodness. But, rather, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” showed me just what it means to have your morals tested and your humanity pushed to its brink.