One regards The Killing of a Sacred Deer with bemused befuddlement. That shouldn't be a huge surprise, though, because this is the latest film from Yorgos Lanthimos, a director whose interests are firmly in placing a work of macabre awkwardness in front of an unwitting audience. The central plot seems to exist in the film's world, which seems to be but a facsimile of our own. That closed world impacts the interaction between the people, who are caught within it like rats in a maze: Their speech is strangely formal, and their inflection is just as oddly mannered.
The intention is to shock, but there's a flat, morbid irony to the method. The opening sequence rather literalizes this concept: The first shot is of the open-heart surgery of a patient. We get an extreme close-up of the organ as it pumps blood to the proper places and as those performing the operation begin to close. Then we cut to a banal conversation between the doctors who just performed it. Matthew (Bill Camp), the anesthesiologist, has just gotten a new watch. Steven (Colin Farrell), the surgeon, has been wanting a new watch for a while.
The two discuss the depths at which the watches will stay underwater, compare the practicalities of leather vs. metal in the watch bands, and agree to set up a meeting between Steven and the man who sold Matthew his watch. The conversation isn't all that engaging, to be frank, but it's the way in which Lanthimos and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis capture the conversation as a lengthy one-take backward through the hallway of the hospital that ends up symbolizing a greater deal about the movie that one might anticipate, especially since the close-up of the surgery includes a slow pull-back on the camera's part.
There are very few instances in which the camera doesn't pull back in Lanthimos' film, which is as difficult pin down as an experience as it is to summarize on a narrative level without making it sound more impenetrable than it actually is. The relevant details reveal themselves slowly in the screenplay by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou: Two relationships are central here. One is between Steven and his family. Anna (Nicole Kidman), his wife, is a clinician, currently renovating her office. Their children are Kim (Raffey Cassidy), an aspiring singer, and Bob (Sunny Suljic), a budding pianist. They feel like a unit through a quartet of strong performances (particularly from Kidman as the character begins to unravel), although they have their quirks, including an openness in intimate behavior conversations that could be called unseemly.
The other relationship is between Steven and 16-year-old Martin (Barry Keoghan, eerie in a cautiously modulated performance that uses the actor's gaunt features very well), who is the son of a former patient of Steven's who died on the operating table. The nature of this relationship, at the beginning, is complicated by an insistence, on Martin's part, on regular meetings between the two. Those meetings become more and more intrusive, as Martin shows up at Steven's work uninvited, invites him to dinner (where Martin's mother, played by Alicia Silverstone, takes too kindly to Steven's presence), and demands the sort of intimacy that Steven shares only with his family (This includes an exchange of gifts and a punctuality, which, if he does not meet it, indicates a kind of betrayal).
We think we know where this is going, but we do not. Even after the plot shifts inexorably toward a situation laden with doom, it isn't quite clear what Martin's role is here. Admittedly, as the film's final movements are completed, ending in a perverse kind of sacrifice, the opacity of the film's treatment of the climax is frustrating. It elicits yet more of that befuddled bemusement and certainly presents a twist on expectations, even those that one might have formulated as the event draws nearer. Frustration and bemusement are just two of the emotions elicited here, though: The Killing of a Sacred Deer also inspires intrigue, confusion, the inability to deny its impact, and, above all, appreciation of its craft.
Colin Farrell (Steven Murphy), Nicole Kidman (Anna Murphy), Barry Keoghan (Martin), Raffey Cassidy (Kim Murphy), Sunny Suljic (Bob Murphy), Alicia Silverstone (Martin's Mother), Bill Camp (Matthew).
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou.
Rated R (disturbing violent/sexual content, graphic nudity, language).
Released in select cities on October 20, 2017.