There is this boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan), and as soon as the film is underway you know there is something off about this guy. We follow Dr. Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) as he goes about his job, while getting acquainted with this boy Martin, who seems interested in becoming a doctor. Martin charms and then insinuates himself into Dr. Murphy’s house and then keeps inviting him to visit his single mother. Before soon, Martin is stalking Dr. Murphy and tries to set up something romantically between the doctor and his mother. But Dr. Murphy has a wife and kids and wants no part of this boy’s plan.
Barry Keoghan plays the creepy Martin with a dead-eyed stare, but since the other actors also play their roles rather stoically, Martin’s behavior can be overlooked and he’s a quite gracious person too, so all we have is this underbelly feeling that something isn’t right about this guy, but I can’t put my finger on it. The way he speaks just doesn’t fit a teenager, but he still shows a teenager’s body language. As an actor he has to walk a very fine line to make this happen. His uncanny performance is the best part of the film.
The rest of the film unfolds like some kind of supernatural Greek tragedy. No coincidence that Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos named this movie The Killing of a Sacred Deer, as it refers to the Iliad’s King Agamemnon’s willingness to sacrifice his own daughter to get favorable winds so that his army could sail to Troy. Creepy Martin tells Dr. Murphy that he has cursed his family and every one of them will die of paralysis and bleeding, unless Murphy sacrifices one of his own children. Murphy’s son Bob is already in the hospital by that time.
It’s the horrible emotional tragedy of a Greek myth transplanted into a sanitized, emotionally-flat present. Many reviewers mention how obtuse the film is and how every actor gives emotionally stunted performances, but I suspect that Lanthimos did this on purpose. The supernatural curse of Martin invades modern reality like some higher or deeper reality, a deeper truth that the world of modern medicine, rationality and morality has to bow to. No matter how much Dr. Murphy raves in anger, it won’t help.
It is a supremely uncomfortable movie to watch because it asks a lot of its viewers. Reading the IMDb reviews gives a telling impression of how this movie was received by audiences (hint: not well). Not only does the cold and flat acting makes it really hard to empathize with the characters and to feel involved with the film, but the brutal moral decisions that Dr. Murphy has to make will undoubtedly throw people off. Understandable, but you got provoked the way Lanthimos wanted to provoke. The key in appreciating a movie like this lies perhaps in wondering how uncomfortable Lanthimos can make it. After all, he’s doing it on purpose, riding a fine line between the deadpan and the uncanny. It’s the art of making people as uncomfortable as possible without resorting to pure horror.
I’m just wondering what the point of it is. Looking at similar films: Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017) was about humanity violating mother nature from a biblical point of view, and Lanthimos’ earlier film The Lobster (2015) was a commentary on today’s expectations about relationships. But this film? Maybe it is about moral shallowness in modern society, but I find that only to be true in the pocket universe that the film sets up. Or maybe it is an appreciation of the cruelty of Greek myth.
Whatever it is, I loved how unrelentingly uncomfortable it is.