A blackly comic performance by Colin Farrell provides the emotional anchor for Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer. As clinically detached surgeon Steven Murphy, Farrell effortlessly switches from arch, quasi-robotic line readings to frantic, plate-smashing furor. His skillful transition from deep-in-denial emotional repression to manic rage is crucial to the film’s success, as Lanthimos and co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou’s characters don’t talk like anyone you’ve ever met in real life.
When Steven, his family, and a mysterious friend, Martin (Barry Keoghan), speak to each other, they fixate on nothing of real importance. They dwell on trivial subjects, and the questions they ask each other—about everything from gauging someone’s fondness for lemonade to whether or not someone else prefers leather or metal as a watchstrap—are bleakly funny when you consider that the film begins with a confrontationally gross close-up of a beating human heart, exposed during one of Steven’s characteristically dangerous procedures. It’s clear right away that this atmospheric horror-thriller’s dramatic stakes are as high as life and death. So why is it that these characters can’t stop talking about food and household chores?
On a related note: Who is Martin exactly, and why does he keep meeting up with Steven? Lanthimos initially keeps the nature of the two men’s relationship a secret, but it soon becomes clear that the heart from the opening scene belonged to Martin’s father, and that it stopped beating while the man was on Steven’s operating table. Now Martin stalks Steven in vain hopes that he will replace his father, which allows the filmmakers to offer up such scenarios as a hysterically weird meet-not-so-cute during which Steven fails to fall for Martin’s mother (Alicia Silverstone), who lasciviously sucks on Steven’s fingers while they watch Groundhog Day. And then Martin threatens Steven: He must kill one of his family members—son Bob (Sunny Suljic), daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and wife Anna (Nicole Kidman)—or all three will die of a physically paralyzing and completely untreatable disease.
You can tell that Martin’s surreally inexplicable curse has gotten under Steven’s skin in the way that Farrell’s speech and mannerisms subtly change at this point. After a couple of scenes, you begin to notice that Steven’s behaving more naturalistically. His comically serene mask slips off every now and then, and you can see the soul-deep exhaustion and short-fuse temper that have come to define Farrell’s fine performances in True Detective and In Bruges. But this shift in character isn’t complete, since Steven doesn’t instantly alter his ingrained habits just because Martin, an unforeseen victim of Steven’s monstrous self-involvement, presents an opportunity for change. Steven struggles to keep his cool throughout the film’s second half, but he often isn’t strong enough to face such intense pressure.
Steven’s see-sawing mood swings are crucial to the film’s success as a mordantly funny social critique. One must understand that Steven is fallible in order to buy the notion that Martin—a villain who represents every dire life-or-death decision that Steven has tried not think about having made as a doctor—isn’t just a juvenile challenge to what Lanthimos sees as a typically upper-class/bourgeois tendency of stumbling through life without any introspection whatsoever. If Martin exists to burst Steven’s bubble, then you have to believe that Farrell’s playing a character, and not just a caricature of upper-class insensitivity. In that sense, Farrell’s varied performance effectively grounds The Killing of a Sacred Deer in ways that Lanthimos’s characteristically atmospheric set pieces simply do not.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17—28.