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Beginning with the lengthy close-up of an actual surgery, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” doesn’t waste time in making you uncomfortable. A psychological horror film brimming with unease and dread, the film’s soundtrack is comprised of high pitched violins, low throbbing booms, and discordant noises that assault your ears. It all adds up to an unsettling tone long before the film’s actual horror elements kick in. Oh, and it’s also a comedy, a pitch-black comedy.
Colin Farrell stars as Steven Murphy, a cardiothoracic surgeon who’s taken Matthew (Barry Keoghan, recently in “Dunkirk”), a high school student, under his wing for reasons that only become clear as the film progresses. But Matthew is strange– though, to be fair, everybody in the movie’s weird, Matthew just especially so– and his increasingly erratic behavior has Steven pulling back on their friendship. Matthew becomes agitated and what happens next is a great hook but might best be left as a surprise. Being vague as possible, it involves the health of Steven’s wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), their two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), and an impossible decision Steven may have to make to save (some) of them.
With its wide-angle tracking shots floating behind the characters and a stark, clinical set design, director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”) is definitely channeling Stanley Kubrick, but there are touches of Michael Haneke and David Lynch sprinkled in too. But this isn’t just a pastiche. Yes, it’s nihilistic, like much of Haneke’s work, but it’s not as nakedly confrontational. And there’s an off-putting vibe, something indefinably wrong that’s hard to pinpoint, but it’s not seductive like in Lynch’s films. Lynch whispers in your ear, lulling you into his romantic nightmares. Lanthimos is more antiseptic; he bathes you in bleach and then expects you to laugh at his nightmare, laugh at the abyss. It’s a film with its own specific rhythm and feel. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
All the characters behave like aliens approximating “normal” human behavior, and failing. Because the acting is so weird, the performances will surely be bypassed this awards season, especially by the Oscars; the Academy Awards don’t like to acknowledge weird. But the performances are great, with Colin Farrell especially standing out. Using his natural Irish brogue, his speech pattern has these lilting cadences as if he’s singing the world’s most polite and banal song. He repeats the most infuriatingly boring tidbits like a mantra: a watch’s depth rating is declared over and over, for example, as if he’s trying to convince himself it’s interesting. The character is on auto-pilot, but Farrell is not. He deadpans the hell out of his performance; his acting is off-putting, but it pushes the film’s skewed-world to the forefront, and it’s also very funny.
But it’s not just how the characters say their lines, it’s also what they say. The dialogue is random and filled with non-sequiturs. Matthew, spending time with Kim and Bob after having just met the two, is suddenly asked by Bob, “Do you have hair under your arms?” Matthew’s placid response: “Yes.” Then he shows them. Earlier at a fancy-dress dinner, Steven’s answer to how his children are doing is, “They’re fine, my daughter just started menstruating last week.”
The situations that Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou come up with are twisted and jaw-dropping in their audacity, especially in the film’s truly cringe-worthy last act. I won’t reveal the best bits here either as that would rob them of their impact, but as Steven and his family are plunged deeper into their horrible ordeal, the sharpest, the nastiest humor punctures through the heart of the movie. It provides some relief, but not in a jovial sense. It gives you something to do other than chew your fingernails. You laugh out of pure disbelief, out of self-defense.
If the names Kubrick, Haneke, Lynch got your attention, you will probably enjoy this movie. It is an oddly cathartic experience. Leaving the theater, you’re glad it’s over, but you walk out saying, “WTF was that?” Then you start talking with your friends about WTF that was, laughing incredulously. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is unpleasant, yes, but it’s so methodically put together, such an extended piece of pure (strange and unpleasant) mood, I didn’t mind putting myself through it…once, at least.