Yorgos Lanthimos makes films so surreal they are almost impossible to describe. He’s not a visual surrealist so much as an emotional surrealist, his stories taking you into bizarre worlds and twisted circumstances. A Lanthimos film is a horror movie without a slasher, and while his films are definitely not for everyone, if you’re into hopelessly strange cinema then the rewards are myriad. His latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is his second English language work, following The Lobster. He works once again with Colin Farrell, who once again does some of his best work. Farrell is particularly calibrated to Lanthimos’ desired effect of flat, monotone performances that serve to highlight the utter strangeness of his stories. Nicole Kidman is also along, as the one actor allowed to express emotions above Lanthimos’ monotonous plane, which gives the story just enough reality to be extra creepy and weird.
A Lanthimos film always revolves around an elaborate conceit, and in Deer it’s that the Murphy family has been cursed. To say any more is to ruin the joy of watching, but this is a Yorgos Lanthimos film, so the curse involves an impossible choice and moral quandary. Farrell stars as Steve Murphy, a neurologist, and Kidman is his wife, Anna, an ophthalmologist. They have two children, Kim (young Snow White from Snow White and the Huntsman, a little older and absolutely superb), and Bob (Sunny Suljic, tolerable). A third party to their family is Martin (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk), with whom Steve has a mysterious relationship. Are they illicit lovers? Is Martin an illegitimate child? Nothing is clear until Lanthimos wants it to be clear.
Lanthimos is a filmmaker of supreme confidence—these kinds of high concept films don’t work without a healthy regard for your own philosophy—and working with his usual collaborators, including co-writer Efthymis Filippou, cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, and editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis, Lanthimos delivers a vision so harrowing it’s almost spiteful. Throughout TIFF I’ve heard people describe Deer as “mean”, but it’s not mean, at least, not like mother! is mean. Deer isn’t forgiving, and it is about, more or less, spite and revenge, but what saves it from outright meanness is the surrealism of the exercise. Deer is a thought experiment, the ending only one of several possible. (That the most obvious solution isn’t even discussed says something about the inherent selfishness of the characters.) It’s not lording secret knowledge over the audience—everything is presented explicitly and we are invited to think about the options just as the Murphys do.
The thought experiment of Deer examines parenthood, but with a different approach than Dogtooth. In that film, parents are cruel and torturous; in Deer, they’re helpless. Parenting is presented as an impossible task, a Sisyphean hurdle in which f*cking up your children is unavoidable. Deer isn’t quite as bleak as Dogtooth, either, but there is a sense of inevitability that plagues the story, especially as Steve and Anna are divided between inaction and action, which exposes some fundamental cracks in their seemingly perfect (slightly kinky) relationship. It also exposes the sibling rivalry between Kim and Bob, and nothing is easy and no one is quite happy.
World-building is non-existent in a Yorgos Lanthimos film, so if you need a concrete answer to how and why, maybe skip this movie. There is no grand explanation for what’s going on in Deer. But if you can accept Lanthimos’ premise for the exercise it is, and if you can roll with the concept, surreal as it may be, then maybe give this a shot. I can’t promise you will like The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but you will definitely have an opinion about it. Also, don’t watch this trailer because it gives too much away.