Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the best dark comedy since his previous film, The Lobster (2015). I’m sure some of you will take issue with that statement when you see it. After all, the film’s penultimate scene is one of the most sadistic set pieces ever. You may very well have to cover your face and peek through your fingers to bear watching it. I know I did. But it’s also hilarious. It’s funny in that oddly peculiar way of freaking you out until you can’t help but laugh.
Fans of The Lobster will recognize the world Lanthimos builds in Sacred Deer. Both films are set in similar “not quite Earths,” where everyone speaks absurdities in stilted cadences. When characters ask each other about how well their kids are doing, they respond with, “Quite nice, actually. My son has hair on his arm pits, and my daughter just started menstruating.” Nobody bats an eye. Part of me wishes Lanthimos went a step further and made Sacred Deer an outright sequel to The Lobster, especially since the former consciously attempts to outdo the latter. Remember that knot in your stomach you felt when a character was about to cut his eyes out in The Lobster? Sacred Deer has fun making you feel that way for almost two hours.
The film follows Steven (Colin Farrell), a surgeon whose bizarre mentorship of a teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan), takes a sinister turn when his children fall victim to paralysis. For all the intrigue during the first act, I expected Martin’s involvement in causing the ailments to remain a mystery throughout the entire film. However, one of the most shocking moments in Sacred Deer is Martin’s early confession that the paralysis is part of his gruesome revenge plan that will only end after Steven commits an unthinkable act.
From there, Sacred Deer descends into understated madness that’s portrayed more much quietly than I ever thought possible for such a horrifying situation. Films tethered to realism might have forced the plot to unfold through big, heavy melodrama. Sacred Deer’s absurdist approach is so calm and casual that you can laugh along with it. Sure, there’s plenty of tension, but it’s all just so damn bizarre that it always registers as more silly than somber. Once the film gets going, I’m sure you’ll ask yourself, “Okay, how can this be funny?” Trust me that Sacred Deer finds a way.
The big reason it works so well is because, although Farrell and Nicole Kidman (playing his character’s wife) are as good as ever, the real heart of the humor is Keoghan’s slack-jawed villain. This kid’s “aw shucks” style of creepiness generates most of the films uncomfortable laughs. Even the way he eats spaghetti will get under your skin to tickle your funny bone. It’s easy to see Sacred Deer becoming one of those cult films people love because it’s just so screwed up and relentlessly weird. I hate reviews where I have to tiptoe around plot twists, especially when they’re this good. The Killing of a Sacred is the type of dark comedy with twists and turns that I could tell you about for hours and never get bored.
Grade = A