Surfaces are deceiving. Director Yorgos Lanthimos all but screams this idea in the opening shot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer: An exposed and beating heart, filmed with almost pornographic frankness, beats during open-heart surgery. The shot might also be the director's way of preparing the audience for what's to come—not that there's all that much blood in Sacred Deer (though there certainly is some), but that you'll have to be willing to tolerate a certain amount of squeamishness. Lanthimos' morality play uses the myth of Iphigenia—who was sacrificed by her father to appease the gods—as a springboard, but it's the mythology of cinema that Lanthimos is intent on exploding as he uses sterile, slow, almost Kubrickian imagery to interrogate the story. What's happening onscreen isn't important. What's going on beneath the surface is.
The lives of husband-and-wife doctors Steven (Colin Farrell) and Anna (Nicole Kidman) are all surfaces. Their quiet, banal existences unfold in the gargantuan house they share with their two likeable children (Sunny Suljic and an excellent Raffey Cassidy). Their conversations dwell on expensive watches and cocktail dresses. Other than some doctor-patient sex play in the bedroom, the only thing that suggests anything other than tranquil domesticity is Steven’s unconventional relationship with a teenage boy (Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan), the nature of which is deliberately ambiguous at the film’s start but becomes painfully defined as it unfolds.
The surreal hilarity of Lanthimos’ last film, The Lobster, is totally absent here; Sacred Deer is, in the moment, an unpleasant experience. But as the director is careful to announce early on, this is not a film about what you see—it’s about what you realize hours, maybe days, after you’ve left the theater. Lanthimos gets under your skin and stays there.