Director Yorgos Lanthimos, who rendered a dry, dystopian vision of the near-future with “The Lobster” in 2015, brews up a waking suburban nightmare that’s equally perverse and haunting. There’s rising tension, but the murky dive into the abyss of a guilty soul, desperate for redemption but unwilling to make sacrifices, becomes “The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s” burning core.
We catch up with the Murphys, a well-off family judged by their grand suburban home. The father, Steven (Colin Farrell), is a respected heart surgeon, while his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), is an equally successful eye doctor. Their children Kim (Raffey Cassidy), a precocious teen, and her younger brother, Bob (Sunny Suljic), round out the nuclear perfection. Everything’s hunky-dory despite an eerie — if not disturbing — sedateness that pervades.
Weirder yet, Steven has obligatory lunches with a boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan), who’s around Kim’s age. They’re uneasy, mandatory meet-ups. Whether Martin is Steven’s illegitimate son or something more salacious, he’s clearly got his hooks into Steven, who is at a loss as to how to free himself. Steven lazily hides Martin’s existence from Anna until one night, Kim comes home from chorus practice on Martin’s motorcycle.
Martin’s clearly trolling Steven, and finally lays his demands on the unnerved doctor over lunch one day. He wants Steven to give up one of his family. Failure to do so, the boy stonily tells him, will result in the successive paralyzation of each family member and then bleeding from the eyes until dead. Slowly, it begins to turn true.
Are Kim and Bob in on some cruel mind game with Martin, or is this really happening, you begin to wonder — and piquantly so. If there’s a tang of familiarity to the odd, unsettling texture, it’s the same fine dicey line that Robert Eggers tread on so effectively in “The Witch” (2015), but here, after a strange brief encounter with Martin’s mother (Alicia Silverstone, so effective in the small turn) the questions become: How well does Steven know Martin’s family and what is in their collective pasts?
Much of the grim corkscrew hangs on Farrell's weary doctor, who, given his station, clearly expected life to be much different. Paunchy for the part as he was in “The Lobster,” Farrell holds all the boiling turmoil within, and tightly so, while it’s Kidman, never one to be garnish, who lets it all out. She’s the film’s raw nerve, and, as the gravity of the situation mounts, her Anna wants answers and will do anything to get them, including a hand job on the fly. In the roles of the children, Cassidy proves quite effective as the nubile teen casting shades of Juliette Lewis from “Cape Fear” and Suljic is a dead ringer for Danny Lloyd in "The Shining," hair and all. Keoghan (in “Dunkirk” earlier this year) on the other hand, tackling a more pivotal part, holds his own with the veteran actors. The young actor’s limpid baby blues and naturally subdued nonchalance add to Martin’s enigmatic malevolence. It’s an ingenious casting that pays off nicely in Lanthimos’ universe.
Ironically, “Killing of a Sacred Deer” opens the same week locally as “Suburbicon,” another film where a parent is confronted with the prospect of sacrificing a family member. There, there’s a heartlessness that doesn’t find its mark, here Lanthimos shoe horns us into the closet, confronting our emotions and values, asking us, what we would do. We viscerally wrestle with the conundrum as Steven does.
Before it’s all over, Greek mythology and biblical allegories find their way into the contemplative olio. Things may wrap up too tidily — or messily, as some may have it — but “Deer” confidently finds its off-kilter gait early and stirringly so.