There’s an early scene in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” that exemplifies what director Yorgos Lanthimos does best: a girl leans against a tree, surrounded by lush greenery, as the camera gently swivels around to capture the beauty of the setting—but she holds a lit cigarette in one hand and sings “Burn” by Ellie Goulding. The contrast is palpable.
Lanthimos is an auteur of juxtaposition. The Greek writer/director made a worldwide splash with his 2016 film “The Lobster”, a triumphant project that found profundity and comedy in stylistic polarity. Lanthimos saps humans of their humanity via dialogue and performance direction: characters talk in monotone and move uniformly; conversations discard subtext like the plague; recognizable emotions are few and far between. “The Lobster” subjected these inhuman humans to quintessentially human experiences—singleness, dating, love, and commitment—and created a breeding ground for satire and black comedy.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” handles its characters similarly, allowing the general effects of Lanthimos’ style to creep through: hollow out humanity to the point that only words and actions remain, and the sheer ridiculousness of life is left on display. People seem perennially out of place, like a girl evoking fire amongst nature. The cinematography helps too: long shots betray how silly we look in our little institutions, and low-angle shots emphasize the absurd reality that we still have power in them.
But do we? That seems to be a central question of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”. The story follows surgeon and family man Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), whose children succumb to a strange disease that renders them half paralyzed and unwilling to eat. Steven suspects that this affliction has something to do with Martin (Barry Keoghan), the teenage son of a former patient.
It’s a loose retelling of the story of Iphigenia, a Greek myth that the movie not so subtly references in one instance of dialogue. Lanthimos’ (and writing partner Efthymis Filippou’s) screenplay tries to use this story as a framing device to convey messages about responsibility, justice, and revenge—but where Lanthimos’ style lent itself perfectly to satire with “The Lobster”, it fails here to lend itself to gravitas.
There are moments of Lanthimos’ signature humor, coyly taunting the viewer to choose between a smile and a grimace. These bits keep the film afloat. But too much of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a slog of obscured meaning. Lanthimos lets the seriousness of repurposing a Greek drama dwarf his better idiosyncrasies, resulting in a heaviness that’s not worth stomaching. Subdued hints do a better job of touching on the story’s themes—like a clip from “Groundhog Day” playing in the background, exploring how a god complex plays into the picture—but they’re drowned out by a dominating focus on plot.
It’s still an atmospheric film, filled out by a screeching score and an eerie performance from Barry Keoghan, whose sociopathic tendencies chill to the core. While Lanthimos’ style works on its own and the storytelling is interesting, the two don’t mesh well enough to imbue “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” with the power of Lanthimos’ earlier work.
★★½ (2.5 out of 5)