"The Killing Of A Sacred Deer" Takes A Diabolical Trip Into Darkness

Can I have your mp3 player when you’re dead? Please? Please? Please?

Audiences familiar with Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” might assume the Greek filmmaker’s follow-up would to be some variation of bonkers. Accurate. Psychological horror pic “The Killing Of A Sacred Deer” is a high concept blood relative, presenting a familiar but dreamlike unreality that, for two hours, becomes truth for characters and viewers alike. The two films also share star Colin Farrell. That’s where the commonalities end, though. Where “The Lobster” petered out in its second half, “Sacred Deer” – inspired by the Greek myth of Iphigenia, princess of Argos – ramps up and up, resulting in a mindwarp of a movie that shares DNA with a few surprising classics.

Some light spoilers to follow.

Steven Murphy (Farrell) is a cardiac surgeon in Cincinnati, Ohio; a family man whose wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and children Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic) depend on to be as steadying a presence at home as he is in the operating room. Their family unit is a strong but inconspicuous one, mother and children unperturbed when father invites an unusual guest over for dinner.

The invitee is a vaguely troubled teen named Martin (Barry Keoghan) whom Steven has taken under his wing for reasons that are not immediately clear. The boy is strange but charismatic, appearing to have some kind of brain disorder. He immediately ingratiates himself with Kim. A scene between the two teens is an early highlight, by turns stirring and faintly sinister – like a rumble of thunder in the distance. Leaning against a shedding elm tree, she sings an out of tune version of Ellie Goulding’s synthpop hit “Burn.” He looks on, expressionless.

Keoghan’s talents were evident in this summer’s “Dunkirk” but here they reach orbit. The 25-year-old Irish actor takes on the undesirable task of presenting a complete character whose motivations are bottled up for nearly half a film and makes him unforgettable – well before we’ve learned of his darkest desires.

Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou keep information to a trickle for nearly an hour, doing some muted but intriguing place setting for what’s to come. When the floodgates finally open – in one of the year’s most memorable scenes – it’s not with histrionics but a chilling, inventively sparse reveal and the realization that we’ve been watching a bevy of terrific performances. Farrell and Keoghan have a delicious anti-chemistry, Kidman is ideal for the brand of steely-eyed disapproval her character requires, and Cassidy and Suljic go on to do some tremendous physical acting in the pic’s second half.

If much of act three is outwardly unpleasant, keeping late ‘60s and early ‘70s horror in mind is a good entry point. Lanthimos is clearly drawing on the works of Friedkin and Polanski and Roeg for his themes and visuals, relaying his story in a rolling fog of anxiety as opposed to the on-demand thrills of the slasher era. The filmmaker saves his violence for the end, resulting in a climax that left this typically unflappable writer very much flapped.

Many will loathe Lanthimos’ temerity here. They will curse the relatively slow tempo at which he metes out his revelations and the ugliness with which his story concludes. But like similarly audacious 2017 highlight “mother!” the piece exists in a different class from its peers, high art on nearly all fronts (the soundtrack is a trip in its own right). The film unfurls on its own terms, commercial prospects be damned, offering arthouse audiences the kind of nerve-fraying thrills often reserved for multiplexes. Only ten times more potent.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: October 20, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenwriters: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Bill Camp, Alicia Silverstone
MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and language)