More than anything, Yorgos Lanthimos knows dark comedy.
And not in the “we’re cracking wise about death and drugs” way that dark comedy has entered the mainstream. This is a writer-director who revels in the bleak dystopian or slightly fantastical worlds he creates, where everyone speaks in context-less deadpan and no one reacts like a real or fictional character should.
But there’s always something funny right underneath the surface. Perhaps it’s the very honest mix of the absurd and the real; his characters never wink at the premise, but they do attempt to operate as functional human beings. They buy fully into their universe, and have no idea how to live in it.
That dynamic continues in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos’s third feature and maybe his most shocking. That’s saying a lot, as Dogtooth features young children trapped in a fenced compound and The Lobster ends with a man stabbing himself in the eye. But while those two films own their dark worlds, Sacred Deer almost dares you to doubt its foundation.
Steven (Colin Farrell) is a surgeon in a world that—for once—feels similar to our own. He and his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) seem to have an odd but loving relationship; his kids Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic) are stilted—like all Lanthimos characters—but relatively normal.
Then there’s Steven’s connection with teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan). Though it seems vaguely sexual at first—Steven looks to impress him, even buys him an expensive watch—we eventually learn that Martin’s father died while Steven was operating on him. We never find out explicitly that it was Steven’s fault, beyond admitting being tipsy during the surgery, but Martin blames Steven for the death either way. And then, through either cosmic karma or unexplained powers, its revealed that Steven’s family will suffer for his actions until he condemns one of them to perish.
What follows is an absurd commentary on so many topics. Patriarchy: the father gets to dictate the life (and death) of his family, including his adult wife. Stubbornness: Steven refuses to admit that he’s culpable for any element of this situation. Religion: the issues that befall Steven’s family feel like smaller scale plagues.
And yet it’s all a little funny. When his family begins negotiating with Steven for their lives, you can’t help but laugh at their barely masked attempts to sway their father. Like in The Lobster, Farrell’s relentless devotion to the role is a godsend. He understands not only the dialogue but how his inherent charm must be deployed to accompany Steven’s general mishandling of everything.
Steven is not a character we’re initially meant to dislike, or at least revile; his past mistakes have disrupted what appears to be a generally decent life, and now he is unequipped to handle an impossible scenario. Of course, in typical Lanthimos fashion, Steven never displays anything close to the emotions you’d hope for or expect; he gets angry and tries to rectify the situation with threats and violence, but never with honesty or love.
And despite her life and the lives of her children being on the line, Anna barely presses Steven to resolve this nightmare in any outside-the-box way. She investigates Steven’s role in the initial incident but—again like a Lanthimos character—accepts a pessimistic outcome as inevitable. She even openly ponders how easy it would be to make another child. Kidman doesn’t get much to work with here, but she does fully understand what kind of movie they’re making; it wouldn’t all fit without her.
It is so hard to put a finger on why Lanthimos makes such brilliant movies, or what magical force enables him to weave tension and comedy into the same scene with seeming ease. A relentless commitment to his vision surely helps: It’s a father deciding on his family’s fate by spinning around in a circle and wildly firing a weapon. It’s a disturbed young man seeking vengeance by pursuing (or at least approving of) some cosmic force destroying his perceived enemies. It’s “an eye for an eye,” presented in fantastical fashion yet occurring in an authentic world. It’s Lanthimos bringing his patented style to reality, which somehow makes it feel even more transgressive and perfect.