Samuel Beckett, meet Sophie. This unlikely introduction of the absurdist playwright to the woman who had to choose which of her two children would die is courtesy of Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos. The union is not entirely fruitful in Lanthimos’ new psychological horror, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but if you can overlook the pretention, tedium and in-your-face classical score, you’ll discover one of the most hypnotically creepy and Kubrickian films of the year.
Colin Farrell is a favorite of Lanthimos. He plays Steven, a cardiologist who befriends an odd 16-year-old boy named Martin, played extraordinarily by Irish actor Barry Keoghan, who is perhaps best known as the boy who was accidentally killed on Mr. Dawson’s “little boat” in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. The nature of their friendship is kept hidden from both the audience and Steven’s friends and family, including his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman). Even when Steven introduces Martin to his children, Kim and Bob (portrayed excellently by Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic), we sense something is not quite right. And subsequently, when Bob is struck with an odd form of paralysis, that feeling of dread is justified.
As with most metaphorical absurdism, the plot is secondary to the symbolism. Martin, in an on-the-nose moment, even says so: “Do you understand?” he asks Steven. “It’s a metaphor — it’s symbolic.” Indeed, the story makes annoyingly little sense in the second half, which, like Lanthimos’ last movie, The Lobster, is too long. But by the time you realize the film has fallen almost blissfully into the realm of ridiculousness — such as when Steven tells Bob that, if he doesn’t recover soon, he’ll shave his son’s head and make him eat his hair — you’re too involved to look away.
Strangely, this involvement does not concern the plot. Indeed, it’s difficult to get worked up when the characters themselves show little emotion and deliver their lines in a strikingly deadpan, monotone manner, even when confronted with inappropriate sexual moments that Lanthimos seems to include just to make his audience uncomfortable. For example, Steven barely shows outrage when Martin’s mother (Alicia Silverstone) practically throws herself upon him romantically. Instead, one is consumed with cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis’ mesmerizing tracking, panning and zooming, rather than the odd plot twists or the script’s lack of linguistic logic. But even the cinematography seems eerily calm, especially when compared to the nightmarish events that dominate the film’s final minutes.
Anna, in describing her husband’s “clean” hands (which, we discover, are anything but clean), says, “So what if they’re beautiful? They’re lifeless.”
The same could be said of the film, which many filmgoers will find tiresome, especially if they forget it’s an allegory. Unfortunately, Sacred Deer is no Lobster. It’s more like surimi, that tasty fish paste that imitates crab. You feel satisfied and erudite eating it, especially if you dip it in melted butter and play classical music while munching. But it’s fake. Gorgeously fake.