At one point in Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the next-level weird character Martin (Barry Keoghan) suggests putting on his favorite movie for himself, his mother (Alicia Silverstone), and Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) to watch. You might reasonably assume the movie to be something like Salò, or Irréversible, but it turns out to be a delightful choice that happens to be one of my favorites too. But this is not a movie of comfort, where you take a sigh because you’ve avoided the bad thing headed your way. In this tale of a family man surgeon’s (Farrell) strange and disastrous mentorship of the son of a former patient (Keoghan), you can’t take a step but for the psychological minefield under your feet.
As the misfit Martin, Barry Keoghan gives a profoundly weird performance. He’s an uncanny valley unto himself, a superficially courteous youth with an unsettling presence. As the movie plays, the viewer wonders if this blank-faced, 21st Century Norman Bates is meant as a comment on mental health issues in some way, but Martin stands apart, in his own pocket universe. Granted, everything of human interaction in this film is off. People talk like automatons (somewhat in the manner of Lanthimos’ previous film The Lobster) and do that thing out of The Room where they switch subjects mid-breath with the imperceptible snap of a finger.
It takes a specific kind of ensemble to pull this off, and so this cast is filled with actors of daring. Colin Farrell, long since breaking out of the “Hollywood leading man” template. Nicole Kidman, who embraces art films, Oscar bait, and blockbusters. Raffey Cassidy, who in Tomorrowland played a literal robot that was much more human, all told. The chameleon Bill Camp. And Alicia Silverstone, who between this and Catfight is starting to make interesting choices.
From the opening shot of the film, meant to shock, it establishes a contract with the audience. The first shot prepares viewers for the many subtler, more insidious shocks that are in store. The sterilized production design makes the whole movie an operating theater of the macabre. And more than that, The Killing of a Sacred Deer returns to a more pagan humanity. There are allusions to Oedipus the King and Hammurabic justice. When Iphigenia comes up, it feels almost too obvious a sign that this contemporary setting is being visited by some stygian shit.
Speaking of signposting, maybe the constant eerie musical stings overplay the movie’s hand. And there is a bit of a tonal issue that comes up with regard to Martin. At first, the other characters warm to Martin and find him charming and personable. But after his true agenda is revealed, the sentiment morphs into “he’s always been weird” despite the other characters’ lack of prior suspicion. It makes the reality of the movie less hermetically sealed, but is overall just a blip in the immersion.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer traffics in grippingly odd dialogue scenes and visual framing, and features some primally upsetting imagery. As animated by Barry Keoghan, Martin’s inimitable strangeness makes him one of the best villains of 2017. You have to be on the film’s wavelength to be engaged with it, and it has the makings of a divisive but major work from Lanthimos. For me, this joins 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dune in a rarefied club of mesmeric movies.