After such films as Dogtooth and The Lobster, Greek-born director Yorgos Lanthimos has developed an idiosyncratic style of filmmaking, made up of subtext-driven stories, morbid humour and moral conundrums. This continues with his latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a modern-day black comedy that draws heartily from the Greek myth of Iphigenia, the daughter of King Agamemnon, who was forced to sacrifice her to satisfy the goddess Artemis.
Set in an unnamed Midwest American city, the story follows an outwardly normal nuclear family, headed by Steven (Colin Farrell), a heart surgeon working at the local hospital. Married to Anna (Nicole Kidman), he is the father of their two children, Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy). But he also has another young man in his life, Martin (Barry Keoghan), a well-spoken teenager who appears to enjoy a strangely close relationship with his older friend.
At first it seems innocent enough, nothing untoward. Martin visits Steven in the hospital, and later spends a day at his house, meeting his kids. Meanwhile, Steven endures a slightly uncomfortable evening with Martin and his mother (Alicia Silverstone), who flirts hopelessly. What is the reason for all this? The script by Lanthimos and his regular co-writer Efthymis Filippou takes its sweet time before revealing itself. It gradually becomes clear Martin has some sort of hold over Steven, a man unwilling to truly accept responsibilities for his actions.
Those who saw Lanthimos’ earlier works will understand he operates one step removed from reality, with characters speaking in bland, monotonous platitudes (“we all have nice hair”, says Kidman at the dinner table) with the life squeezed out of them. Like Steven’s profession, everything is cold, clinical and antiseptic. Even sex – as demonstrated when the surgeon instructs his wife with the phrase “general anesthetic”; she then poses on her bed as if knocked out cold.
What follows is increasingly unsettling, as Steven’s children begin to sicken. Their legs become limp and their appetites decline, baffling the medical profession. There is almost a Biblical ‘eye for an eye’ quality to proceedings, with Martin clearly involved on some unconscious level. But it would be remiss to spoil this logic-defying story, one that takes increasingly brutal and bloody turns as the third act plays out. Once again, Lanthimos has proven what a unique voice he is in modern cinema.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens in cinemas on 3 November. For more information, visit: www.curzonartificialeye.com
1. Still from The Killing of a Sacred Deer.