The problems of the Meyerowitz clan are small fry compared to what Steven, a successful cardiologist played by Colin Farrell, is up against in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a startlingly baroque supernatural thriller from Yorgos Lanthimos. Steven and his picture postcard family are up against the furies. This is the director’s second English-language feature since his international breakthrough, The Lobster, which won the jury prize at the 2015 Cannes Festival, but the spirit of Euripides and Greek tragedy clings to the Athenian director’s first foray into horror. The title refers us several thousand years back to Iphigenia in Aulis, where Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to appease the Artemis, after hunting one of the goddess’ sacred animals.
A patient recently died on Steven’s operating table, and the doctor clearly has a bad conscious. Why else would be befriend the dead patient’s son, Martin (Barry Keoghan), an intense, 16-year-old who would send anyone who’s ever seen The Omen or We Have To Talk About Kevin running? Instead, Steven invites Martin over to dinner, and before long he’s insinuated himself in Steven’s polite and gracious family and won over Steven’s 14-year-old daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy). Along with her younger brother Bob ((Sunny Suljic), similarly fine-featured and dour, terrible things begin to befall Kim. All the tests run by the hospital come back negative; no one can explain why the siblings are suddenly unable to walk or to eat. Steven and his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) grow increasingly frantic. They are ready to believe anything, when Martin casually informs that Steven, having “murdered” his father, must now choose which family member to sacrifice.
For bringing Iphigenia to the altar, Agamemnon won favorable winds for sailing to Troy. There is no comparable reward to Steven and the horrific choice he contemplates. Lanthimos shoots the tale with bold stylistic precision while his characters haltingly speak their stilted, slightly inhuman dialogue. Not since Kubrick has a director used formal fussiness to such spectacular effect. An eerily depopulated Cincinnati forms the backdrop for this exploration of dread, with pristine hospitals and bedrooms taking on the monstrous significance of the Overlook Hotel. We’re kept guessing as to whether Martin’s verdict that blood will have blood is anything more than a psychotic boast. Regardless, the horror that the film generates is spectacularly real. In there’s a flaw in Lanthimos’ careful construction, it’s the lack of varying registers of comedy, absurdity, surrealism and pathos that made The Lobster, a dystopian fable that evoked Louis Malle’s Black Moon and Godard’s Week-End, a constant stunner. Compared with the earlier film, The Killing of A Sacred Deer, for all its technical beauty, remains a shocker whose main ambition is to catch its audience in the headlights.