Yorgos Lanthimos trades hilarity for horror in ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’

There’s nothing funny about “The Lobster” director Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” For how off-putting his style is, it’s hard not to chuckle at. His characters talk like they were made on an assembly line, and his sterile visual sensibility makes detaching from the narrative easy. With his latest effort, a gloss on the ancient Greek play “Iphigenia at Aulis,” Lanthimos goes full on psychological horror. By honing in on the darkness at the heart of his story, Lanthimos makes detaching from it impossible.

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Most of this is thanks to Barry Keoghan’s relentlessly off-putting performance as Martin, the maybe-psychopath probably-unstable teenager at the movie’s center. Steve Murphy (Colin Farrell), a talented cardiatric surgeon, meets up with Martin for unknown reasons. He keeps the relationship secret from even his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two kids, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), saying privately to his wife that he’s helping Martin grieve for his father who died in a car accident a decade earlier.

This is only half-true. Martin’s father did die, and Steve is helping the boy mourn, but the whole thing is on Martin’s terms. Steve and his family are puppets in his strange, tireless quest for revenge. Lanthimos is stubborn in revealing these motivations and the movie is better for it. In the meantime, Martin ingratiates himself in the family’s home, tearing down any member unlucky enough to fall in his orbit.

At times, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is unyielding to a fault. Its vision is so specific and absurd, punctuated by moments of sudden violence, that it loses its identity. Its content is far different from “The Lobster,” but the characters — save Kidman, the strongest performance of the cast — speak in the same halting cadence, like every word was bred in a lab and set out before its time. Farrell, for how strong an actor he is, just plays a darker analogue to David in “The Lobster.” It doesn’t help that he has no chemistry with Sunny Suljic, who turns in a wooden, if effortful, performance. When it comes down to it, only Keoghan and Kidman are worth paying attention to.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is mesmerizing all the same. Lanthimos’ filmography is a masterclass in maintaining tone, and “Sacred Deer” continues that legacy. It’s terrifying by any measure and a solid, nail-biting experience, but it feels familiar, especially if you’ve delved into the director’s career. It’s hard to laugh at “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” because its absurdity and darkness is earnest and arresting, handled with a keen eye by Yorgos Lanthimos. Whether or not you want it to, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” puts you on the altar and opens you up. Putting yourself back together afterwards is just a part of the experience.

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