Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which opens in limited release Friday, begins with one of the more repulsive images I've ever seen on screen. It is the organs – maybe the stomach and the pancreas? – of a human torso mid-surgery, filmed in grotesque close-up. These organs thump and ripple in lockstep with a heart that beats offscreen, unnaturally hard and fast, while gloved hands begin to sew thread through the flaps of skin at the edge of the open wound. Yuck.
If you had any question about whether this new psychological dramedy from the director of last year's The Lobster would be a tough sit, here's your answer right off the bat. Lanthimos' latest is at times a thrumming genre-bender with startling narrative developments, but it's more of a horror than anything else, and because Lanthimos operates at such an emotional remove – there is no face attached to the organs in the opening image, for example – it often makes for extremely uncomfortable viewing. Furthermore, Sacred Deer has neither the absurdist humor nor the allegorical heft of The Lobster, which made that film's violence easier to justify.
Still, no one can argue with the originality here. The gloved hands in the opening surgery belong to one Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, who also starred in The Lobster). He is married to a successful ophthalmologist, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and seems to enjoy his well-appurtenanced family life in an upper crust suburb of Cincinnati, the skyline of which – Ohio viewers will be pleased to know – is on recurring display throughout.
But the central relationship of the film is between Steven and a troubled teenager named Martin (Dunkirk's Barry Keoghan). Martin has adopted Steven as a father figure, after his own dad died a few years back. Steven is intimately connected to that death, and feels a grim sense of responsibility for Martin. But Martin's behavior gets increasingly discomfiting, increasingly sinister. His clinging personality turns stalker-ish. Soon, he's absconding for evenings with Steven's daughter and showing up in Steven's office unannounced when he should be at school. Up until an hour or so into the film, if not for Lanthimos' stylized dialogue, it would scan like a standard stalker flick. But then Martin reveals something to Steven that throws a wrench in the formula: Steven must make a terrible choice – he must "kill a sacred deer," as the title suggests – to equalize the pain that Martin felt at the loss of his dad. (It's a close thematic relative of the "compatibility" material in The Lobster, where lovers could only pair off if they had something essential in common.)
Here, Martin wants justice, and he's ruthlessly committed to an ideology of equality. When he bites Steven late in the film, drawing blood, he does the same to himself.
But if Steven does not submit to what Martin says, an even greater tragedy will befall him. The question that you might find yourself asking, as a bizarre chain of events begins to play out, is how. Is Martin just a mentally unstable kid or does he actually have supernatural powers? When Anna pleads with Martin in a desperate moment, Martin says the terrible choice that Steven must make is the only way he can think of to balance the scales. He is the architect and agent of Steven's misery, but it's impossible to discern how he's making these things happen. (It's almost certainly irrelevant, though it still nags.)
Lanthimos' settings and camerawork all make for a technically superb production, and though the film's second half is unbelievable in many respects, you cannot help feeling a disturbed sense of wonderment as the medical anomalies mount. The performance of Barry Keoghan as Martin is most vivid and disturbing of all. He's a perfect Lanthimos villain – as homely as he is dispassionate, as inscrutable as he is viciously weird.