The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens with a shot of an open-heart surgery. There is blood, there are stitches, there are slowly-moving hands, and, in the centre of the screen, there is a frantically pulsing organ.
The idea of a serene shell around a disturbed shaking core permeates the rest of the film, which follows Steven, a soft-spoken cardiovascular surgeon (Colin Farrell). Steven lives a peaceful, if not stoic, life with his wife (Nicole Kidman, in an especially powerful performance) and his two children. His life also includes a strange relationship with a young man, Martin (Barry Keoghan).
The film’s characters speak in the tilted monotone you would expect from a young director’s first student film. Things move slowly for a while. While Steven and Martin’s relationship is off-putting from the start, we aren’t let in on its true intentions until well into the film.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos is known for quiet, well-paced plots that explode into violence (2009’s Dogtooth and 2015’s The Lobster.) His most recent film is no exception, as the viewer is exposed to the cracks in the veneer of this family long before any blood is shed. At one point, Steven unknowingly makes disturbing comments about his daughter to a co-worker while his wife watches unblinkingly.
These cracks, however, are the film’s source of joy. What happens next is terrifying, fantastical, and wholly unbelievable. Lanthimos is no stranger to the absurdist allegory – his last film, The Lobster, revolved around a plot in which humans were turned into animals as a metaphor for the loneliness within human relationships – and here he executes a story so strangely gripping that you barely have time to realize just how inconceivable the plot really is.
Lanthimos offers no explanation for the borderline supernatural events that proceed to plague this family, and instead gives us motives – we are made to understand why the characters choose to do what they do, but are left in the dark about how.
If you are willing to suspend your disbelief for two short hours, you will find yourself dragged through a story of primitive revenge and the perverse shattering of a once-idyllic home. Cruel, hilarious, and utterly humane, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a blessing.