A surreal thriller, a Greek tragedy, a fairy tale, and a macabre black comedy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of the most suspenseful films of the year. I spent two hours on the edge of my seat. But when it was over, I was severely disappointed. Was that it? That was it. Oh.
The sensation was familiar. I had much the same experience last year with The Lobster, another loopy, chilling parable in which Colin Farrell played a morose divorced man sentenced to be turned into the animal of his choice if he couldn’t find a romantic partner in 45 days. Both The Lobster and Sacred Deer were directed and co-written by Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos, who is turning out to be a kind of riveting nuisance of cinema. Lanthimos is far too talented to ignore, and he has an appealingly rangy imagination to go with a Coen Brothers–style feel for oblique comedy. But he is not a closer. Like some other immensely skillful but frustrating directors — Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch — he would benefit greatly if he attached his aural and visual gifts to a well-constructed three-act story. Instead he plays with ideas he ultimately doesn’t know what to do with.
As in The Lobster, Farrell maintains a rigorous poker face, this time as a heart surgeon named Steven living in a suburb of a nameless Midwestern city. (Sacred Deer was filmed in Cincinnati, a place not often seen on screen, which helps to build an aura of peculiarity.) He seems to have a stable relationship with his ophthalmologist wife (Nicole Kidman) and their teen daughter and pre-teen son. So studied is the banality of Steven’s interactions with everyone around him, though, that it gradually becomes strange and a little frightening. A sexual ritual with the missus is for her to pretend she’s immobilized by general anesthesia.
That scene is characteristic of an unsettling sterility, a kind of deadness, to everything surrounding the doctor. What is weirdest about him is an unanswered question: Why does Steven keep meeting with a college-aged young man named Martin (chillingly played by Barry Keoghan)? We’re more than half an hour into the film before we even sort out who Martin is: the son of a patient of Steven’s who died on the operating table. Steven admits no fault in the mishap but badly wants the young man to forgive him. Instead, Steven’s children begin to suffer unexplained ailments.
To relate any more would be to give away too much. Sinister, cold-blooded, and at times droll, Lanthimos takes a simple parable and expands it to feature-length at an agonizing pace. The world Lanthimos conjures up grows steadily more unnerving, with horrific, slashing bursts of music increasing the tension with each passing scene. All of this, and the fluid, graceful shots in which cameras roll steadily down hallways or pull slowly away from faces, reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but that movie brilliantly kept us off guard only to eventually come together beautifully in the final act. Sacred Deer, for all its gripping style, merely ends without resolving anything except in the most superficial way.
The deliberate pace with which Lanthimos unfolds the story provides an opportunity for plenty of reflection about what’s going on beneath the surface, but I couldn’t find much coherence here either. Steven is a bridge between the clinical, empirical realm of the hospital, with its gleaming white surfaces and elegant high-tech machinery, and the inscrutable, illogical situation in which his family seems to be ensnared, which amounts to an unexplained intrusion from the domain of fairy tales like “Rumpelstiltskin.” Yet as a comment on the ultra-rational vs. the supernatural, the film fizzles. There is no real interplay between the two sides; the movie is as frustrating as a negotiation in which one side refuses to budge. Amid the brutally well-realized sense of impending doom, there are several unexpectedly funny moments, but the deadpan black comedy never forms a solid foundation for the movie either. It just fades in and out like a distant radio station.
So Sacred Deer winds up being a horror film without a satisfying payoff, a morality play without a lesson, a comedy with maybe four laughs. It’s a think piece of a movie, but the more I think about it, the less I like it.