During my teens, I went through a bit of a Faith No More obsession. If it was even tangentially related, I bought and listened to it. One of those numerous side-project albums (Delìrivm Còrdia by Fantômas) still sticks in my mind, not due to any of the music, but rather the artwork. Each page of the liner notes has a shot of a real medical operation (taken from the book The Sacred Heart by Max Aguilera-Hellweg), arranged and lit as if it were a chiaroscuro by Caravaggio. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the latest film by Yorgos Lanthimos, opens with such a shot — organs pulsating to the time of Schubert’s Stabat Mater during open heart surgery, giving it the air of a classical composition. Both have the same effect; shining a light past the surface onto the seemingly grotesque matter within.
Colin Farrell plays Stephen Murphy, a successful cardiologist, living out in the ‘burbs with his wife (Nicole Kidman) and kids (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic). But between work and home, Farrell spends his time with Martin (Barry Keoghan), a heavy-eyed, socially awkward teenager. How they know each other seems to change depending on who’s asking. Apparently, he’s a friend of his daughter. No, wait, he’s a former patient. Or perhaps he’s the son of a former patient? As the film progresses, Martin’s true intentions are illuminated, and unfortunately for the Murphy family, they go deeper than a casual interest in cardiology.
My only previous frame of reference for Lanthimos is his breakthrough film Dogtooth (I unfortunately missed Alps and The Lobster), but the differences between the two films makes for an excellent showcase of his growth into a terrifyingly effective director. His initial austere style has evolved to an interesting synthesis of his taste for the absurd with a more professional sheen. Dialogue that feels as if it was dictated by a text-to-speech program adds to the sense of disquiet. Keoghan in particular deserves mention for just how unnerving he can make the most ordinary of tasks seem (eating spaghetti, for instance). The soundtrack, a mix of atonal strings and droning timpani flutters, is instrumental in building the sense of dread; the way the latter morphs into the former makes it feels like the sound is about to break asunder.
All these elements add up to make The Killing of a Sacred Deer an exercise in extreme tension. It examines how far it can stretch your nerves until breaking point. It doesn’t let up until the credits begin to roll. I must admit, I almost didn’t make it. The stomach churning ascent to the climax was incredibly hard to bear at times. But I really believe that it’s a journey worth making. It won’t make you feel good, but it will show you a level of suspense beyond the dreams of Hitchcock. It is an exceptional achievement in the art of pushing an audience to the limits of unease.