The opening shot of THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER sets the stage for what you are about to see. Some of the most assured films know how to set the tone immediately and this one definitely belongs in the category of “prepare yourself.” We begin with a Kubrick-esque overture followed by a beating pulse on display for all to gaze into. Maybe there’s a sense about the fragility behind surgery or it could simply be a commentary on being too exposed and vulnerable. Once the wheels are set in motion within the story, you do wonder if maybe that first shot was simply the starting point for the actions / vengeance that are put into motion. After the aforementioned brief musical overture, we go from pitch black to the image of an actual human heart, splayed open in a patient’s chest during surgery, writhing and pulsing. Director Yorgos Lanthimos (DOGTOOTH, THE LOBSTER) is about to put us through an intensely uncomfortable experience and if you know the man’s work, you know what to expect in advance in terms of midnight black humor mixed with cringe-inducing madness. This heart is one of only a few moments of gore, as Lanthimos chooses to evoke horror through profoundly strange and awkward conversations, punctuated just by sharp, dissonant strings and oddly timed percussion. To call the entire film jarring would be an understatement, but it is a welcome, albeit challenging feeling to savor.
Initially, it appears that everything is under control, with little friction, and ever-polite conversation about mundane matters making up the family’s conversations. Even lovemaking has a ritualistic quality to it. Perhaps a bit odd and detached, but there is rigorous structure and painstaking stillness. And yet, occasionally one of the characterswill burst out with some extremely personal information seemingly out of nowhere. Lanthimos specializes in challenging social conventions, without providing any easy answers. Here we sense some kind of mystery each time a particular character appears, for the score indicates tension laying underneath the surface. Steven Murphy (a brilliant Colin Farrell) is a heart surgeon, and his wife Anna (the always reliable Nicole Kidman) is an ophthalmologist and head of a clinic. Teenager Kim (Cassidy) is bright, with an interest in music, and younger Bobby (Suljic) is also very bright, but has yet to show particular talents. They live in a large, orderly house with neatly tended gardens. Lurking at the margins of his idyllic suburban existence is Martin (Barry Keoghan), a fatherless teen who insinuates himself into the doctor's life in gradually unsettling ways. He starts out harmless, but gradually becomes more akin to a Dennis-The-Menace from hell. His intentions become clear and suddenly there is reason to take up nail biting. Themes of guilt, vanity and regret make THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER more than just a horror mystery with a penchant for Haneke-like interactions. The ideas here give life to the absurd and paint the film more as a dissection of human behavior than anything else. It’s a film that delves into people and how they operate, just with a skin of a far creepier film laid over top.
Lanthimos directs in a way, with this film in particular, that is more about precision and detail. Everything is symmetrical, in its right place, and a testament to how chaotic and random the events are in a rather inhuman nature, unfolding right before us. There are times when our expectations are met with implausibility, but that’s simply due to the world here being a bit off-balance as a result of what we’re seeing. If I had to summarize my own personal take on the story, I would say it hinges on my own personal belief (which some could consider to be cynical) that death is every bit as random as the breaths we exhale each and every day. I’m a firm believer in the chaos theory. There was no rhyme or reason that I almost died at a young age from a rare fungus, it just happened. We’d also like to think, like the doctors portrayed by the parents, that we’re in control of our fate, but maybe there is some mysterious force in the shadows (similar to the fungus that took hold of me my senior year). Parents also like to believe that they can keep their children safe, but again, an unknown impetus may come into play.
The conclusion seems to leave us contemplating who Martin really is and whether or not he could potentially be lurking anywhere at any time. Also, the line between professional desensitization and psychopathy is often blurred. Sure, it can be simplified into a battle between good and evil or to divest the fallible doctor of his God complex. I’d like to think Lanthimos has more on his mind. Outside of its psychology or philosophy on display, this is confident filmmaking at its most cold and deliberate. It’s a skilled horror film full of shock and uncertainty. There is also a moment that takes place in a kitchen where Nicole Kidman gives her best acting since a similar albeit shorter scene in EYES WIDE SHUT in which she gives her husband a vocal slap in the face. Farrell is equally great in his outbursts or frustration throughout. The way things resolve initially gave me pause, but it only added to reinforce my own personal belief: there is no preparing for eternal rest and decision-making shouldn’t carry the kind of weight we’ve burdened ourselves with. As a character in MAGNOLIA once repeated, “This is just something that happens.”