Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a renowned heart surgeon, lives with his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and their teenage daughter and young son, Kim and Bob. They are wealthy, polite and apparently very successful.
But there is definitely something not quite right in the Murphy family. A coldness hangs over their disconcertingly spotless household and stilted interactions, which suggests suppressed emotions and unresolved conflict. Unsettling camera angles add to the sense of impending crisis — filmed from low down it sometimes feels as if the characters are falling. Grinding music and strange noises further ramp up the tension.
And then there’s Martin. Steven secretly meets up with this odd teenager and we are left to wonder for a good portion of the film who exactly Martin is and why Steven seems to feel an obligation towards him. Is he a son from another relationship? A disadvantaged kid he’s taken under his wing?
As the nature of their relationship becomes clear the tone switches from unease to outright menace and then relentless dread. Steven is asked to make an unthinkable decision and the different family members’ attempts to come to an answer raise all kinds of moral issues.
Lanthimos’s 2009 film Dogtooth similarly dealt with families and taboos, but in The Killing of a Sacred Deer there is less of the dark humour and more horror as the film remorselessly marches towards its conclusion.
The film contrasts the Murphys’ clinical, clean house and Steven’s “beautiful, white, clean hands” with many scenes of eating — particularly Martin, who shovels spaghetti into his mouth, tomato sauce dripping down from his fork.
And then there’s the bodily fluids. Kim has just got her first period and she and her parents keep telling people about it. Martin is dealing with adolescence and wants to compare body hair. And then, as family members fall ill one by one, there is vomiting and bleeding from the eyes, among other things.
Martin, played by Irish actor Barry Keoghan, is brilliantly disturbing. He is on a mission to force Steven to take responsibility for his actions and to recognise that they have consequences. But he is also a messed up teenager who needs help. Alicia Silverstone gives an excellent performance in a small role as Martin’s mother.
Colin Farrell spends most of the film walking down corridors frowning. But this is fitting, because Steven cannot and will not talk about what happened until Anna forces it out of him. And until that point — when they unravel under pressure from Martin — almost nothing any of the characters say can be taken as true. So perhaps Martin is forcing the truth out of them — or perhaps he is just imposing his version of events.
Lanthimos has created a whole, weird world here, which works on a kind of mythical level. It raises big issues and leaves many questions. I’ve been pondering it ever since.