Intense choral music in the dark opens The Killing of a Sacred Deer, setting the tone for an intense ride into the crazy world of Yorgos Lanthimos. The first image we see is a close-up of a beating heart, the marble and red organ surrounded by the blue sheet of the operating theatre. This segues onto the surgeon dropping his bloodied gloves into a bin: the colours and image is similar, but one represents pulsating life and the other defeat and death.

The surgeon is Steven (Colin Farrell). He’s a renowned cardiologist married to ophthalmologist Anna (Nicole Kidman). They are a beautiful couple with two gorgeous kids – Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). But there is another less gorgeous element: Martin (Barry Keoghan) is a teenager who surreptitiously visits Steven. They have covert meetings and Steven lavishes the boy with expensive gifts. Is he an illegitimate child? A lover? It soon transpires that he is the son of a patient who died on Steven’s operating table. And when Steven brings him into his home, the film switches from mystery to thriller.

The story has familiar cinematic precedents, from Fatal Attraction to Cape Fear (not least because of the latter’s focus on the burgeoning sexuality of the daughter and the danger it brings), with essentially good men trying to protect their family from a very personal danger. However, thanks to Lanthimos’s familiar techniques, such as the staccato speech used by his characters and the autistic and inappropriate dialogues they have. But these tricks have been toned down since Lobster, leaving the viewer teetering between a straightforward thriller and an absurdist surreal drama. Lanthimos wrote the screenplay with Efthimis Filippou and they maintain this balancing act throughout. And thanks to that script, the audience laughs at inappropriate moments and at the most horrific scenes, again manoeuvring the viewer’s perspective.

The Killing of a Sacred DeerAs the story progresses and Steven’s life unravels, we are taken into increasingly weird territory. When the delusional Martin tries to set Steven up with his mum, we realise that she is as deluded as her son. There is also a nice touch here: when she tells Steven that they met before at the hospital, she says ‘you might not recognise me’ and it was only later that I realised the actress was Alicia Silverstone. She is excellent in this cameo and also has one of the film’s funniest lines.

Where the men in those previously mentioned movies were placed in terrible positions, Steven’s is exacerbated by the almost magical power of his adversary. What is that power and how does he utilise it? And how do you fight something you do not understand? When Steven is told that he has to kill a family member in order to save the other two and to atone for taking Martin’s father, he tries to decide how to proceed, again with often comedic results. This is where Anna develops and evolves from being a protective, perfect mother in order to save herself.

There is consistency in her tactics, for we see that she has long protected and enabled her husband. She gives him everything he wants, from wearing a dress that he likes to acting out his sexual fantasies. Cassidy and Suljic are highly credible as the sparring siblings, who also have to fight for their salvation. But the real stars here are the two male leads. Farrell works so well with Lanthimos and this director should take credit for showcasing Farrell’s skills. Keoghan is given the chance to shine here and he has quite a career ahead of him. 

There is little to fault with this film. It looks stunning thanks to cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, a longstanding collaborator on Lanthimos’s films. And British composer Johnnie Burn contributes to creating drama and building the fear in the film, as the booming music leads us to its denouement. Burn was responsible for Lobster, but also for Under the Skin, and there are similarities with this film in their funny/terrifying combinations. Yet Lanthimos has again given us something unique and hopefully, thanks in part to its stellar leads and a more superficially mainstream storyline, he will attain an even wider audience.