“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a grim, chilly parable about guilt, revenge and Old Testament “justice.” It re-teams the director and star of “The Lobster” for another cryptic, melancholy exercise in tone and style.
Everyone in it speaks in the hypnotic and unemotional voice of the husband-and-wife doctors (Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman). They, their colleagues and their “perfect” children (Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic) speak with a monotonous flat directness.
“Our daughter started menstruating last week,” the heart surgeon Dr. Steven Murphy (Farrell) tells his anesthesiologist (Bill Camp).
“Have you got hair under your armpits yet?” his youngest son (Suljic) asks the strange teenager (Barry Keoghan) Dad has brought home to dinner.
“Strange” is an understatement when it comes to Martin, a teen Dr. Murphy meets in diners, takes for talks by the river and patiently listens to — no matter what banalities come out of the kid’s mouth. Martin has some sort of power over Steven.
“Me and my mom thought it would be nice if you came over to dinner tonight,” sounds like an order, a veiled threat. Martin isn’t going to take “No” for an answer.
As that “power” mystery unravels (Alicia Silverstone is Martin’s mother), the life of quiet order and privilege that Steven and Anna sleepwalk through faces a medical crisis, one that could be psychological or supernatural. And its instigator, plainly, is Martin.
Director/co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos emphasizes the near-silent sterility of a modern hospital (the film was shot in Cincinnati), unnervingly tracking down long quiet corridors behind or leading on the doctors with a close facsimile to a fisheye lens. Voices are not raised, even as the crisis starts to manifest itself.
Characters linger in extreme closeups, registering only the faintest alarm, discomfort, fear or threat — closeups that leave us rattled. A sharply dissonant musical score unsettles the viewer further.
Intimacy is alien, sex is an agreed-upon clinical routine, a cold-blooded transaction.
Until everything progresses so far that voices must be raised, threats turn overt and violence visits them all.
Keoghan (“Dunkirk”) is the very picture of “the banality of evil.” But he makes Martin mimic the tones of the doctors he is spending time with. Nothing is personal. “Blame” is pointed at someone else, always at someone else.
Farrell is doing his most intense, adult work with Lanthimos, even if the films are the least accessible of his career. Kidman lends the picture her trademark frosty humanity, a warmth slow to reveal itself.
The story they tell is every bit as cryptic as “Mother!” and almost as dark, if not quite as Biblical. “Killing of a Sacred Deer” is grim-going, too long for the thin parable it is built upon.
But Lanthimos orchestrates these performances into a perfectly-matched pitch, before lighting a match against this chill for an emotional climax that, like the picture before it, moves you even as it leaves you cold.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and language
Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Alicia Silverstone
Running time: 1:58