Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest endeavor is a modern retelling of Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis. It is a Greek tragedy set in a sterile, contemporary setting, accompanied by Lanthimos’s signature stoic characters and off-beat movements. Colin Farrell plays a cardiac surgeon called Steven Murphy whose fatherly relationship with the son of one of his deceased patients takes a sinister turn.
Right from the start, we can tell something is off about the whole thing, due to the ominous music in the background and the boy Martin’s (played unnervingly by Barry Keoghan) off-putting earnestness. He stands out like a sore thumb when visiting Murphy’s family in their palatial home. Yet he carries himself with a peculiar sense of assurance. Eventually, the source of that assurance is revealed, when Martin admits he is exacting revenge on Murphy, whom he holds responsible for his father’s death. The method of revenge is horrifying in its justice and yet feels impersonal.
Like a Greek tragedy, the story invokes pity and fear as we watch Murphy grapple with the terrible choice he must make. Eventually we long for the punishment just so Murphy’s agony can end. The title alludes to the death of the sacred deer of goddess Artemis, which Agamemnon was responsible for. I won’t reveal the penalty for that sin here, as it would be a bit of a spoiler. But you don’t need to be well-versed in Greek tragedy to feel the full impact of this body horror, and to recognize the mythological elements at play: the way things progressively and unrelentingly worsen, the looming judgment, the father who must pay for his wrongdoings, and the family at his mercy.
Nicole Kidman is the perfect addition to this film, as an ophthalmologist, and mother and wife. She is pale and soft, but as she watches her children and husband in agony, she becomes hard and brittle. Her desperation and disbelief come through her acting without any melodrama, and even though she says little, it is easy to see she knows and understands more than she lets on. At the same time, her character takes unexpected turns, and she is more than a stereotypical mother figure.
Lanthimos’s effort is considerably darker than the black comedy and romance The Lobster, which also featured Farrell. Sacred Deer is an engrossing psychological horror film. It may take a while to understand where the film is headed, and to appreciate the filmmaker’s odd direction, but it’s well worth the effort.