Review: It's hard to watch 'Killing of a Sacred Deer,' Lanthimos' latest psycho-horror flick

What exactly is the nature of their relationship?

What exactly is the nature of their relationship? Photo by Jima (Atsushi Nishijima), courtesy of A24

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is hard to watch.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen a Yorgos Lanthimos movie before. The director quite obviously enjoys making audiences uncomfortable, borrowing from the toolboxes of Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke to craft what feel like waking nightmares. 2015’s The Lobster stands out as one of the more troubling movies in recent years. Sacred Deer isn’t much of a departure.

No one thing makes Lanthimos’ pictures so unsettling. Every component—the intentionally stilted dialogue, his characters’ TMI candor, the unfathomable horrors they inflict on one another—works in harmony with a sole purpose to disturb.

Sacred Deer wastes no time in this regard, opening with a graphic close-up of a beating heart before transitioning to a cardiovascular surgeon and anesthesiologist discussing water-resistant watches in trademark Lanthimos monotones. The former is Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a respected medical practitioner and recovering alcoholic. He’s been meeting a 16-year-old boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) in secret, and buys him a watch. It’s not clear why Steven gets Martin the gift, nor is it clear why he then decides to invite the boy over for dinner with his wife (Nicole Kidman) and two children. That’s just how things happen in Lanthimos movies.

Martin returns the favor by inviting Steven to dinner with him and his mother (Alicia Silverstone), and this is when things start to go pear-shaped. Martin’s mom attempts to seduce Steven, sucking on his fingers before Steven finally flees. Soon, Martin starts showing up at the hospital and Murphy residence out of the blue, and Steven’s youngest child, Bob (Sunny Suljic), mysteriously loses all feeling in his legs. It’s not long thereafter that Martin’s true intentions are made clear.

The plot points do more than enough to unnerve, but Lanthimos doubles down with his direction. If there were ever a time to use the term “Kubrickian” beyond a discussion of Stanley himself, this is it. Sacred Deer combines the insidious framing, tracking, and zooms of The Shining, with the sort of impartial brutality of A Clockwork Orange. We never get a break.

Aside from Silverstone’s memorable finger-sucking scene (talk about getting someone’s digits), Farrell and Keoghan are the standouts here. Farrell’s indie work has unveiled a talent belied by many of his mainstream roles. In both The Lobster and Sacred Deer he manages the difficult task of being expressive via an almost robotic protagonist. His character’s unraveling runs the gamut from measured to manic.

Keoghan’s Martin is a masterful villain, in part because Lanthimos forces us to understand his motivation, but also because of how Keoghan inhabits space in the movie. There’s a supreme creepiness in his matter-of-fact incursion. And though he’s wreaking havoc on the Murphy family, he never seems to admit or even realize any agency in what’s happening to them, which causes us to wonder how much control he has over their misfortune and just what the hell is happening here anyway. Lanthimos offers no explanation.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer bears the marks of a classic psychological horror flick. That said, its success is rooted in its difficulty. Moviegoers, be warned.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Alicia Silverstone, Colin Farrell
Rated: R
Theater: Starts Friday, Lagoon Cinema