If you’ve seen “The Lobster,” then you probably know not to expect a clear explanation for any of this. Lanthimos couldn’t possibly care less about how Marvin plans on pulling this off, and when Kim and Bob both become paraplegic, their parents are quick to accept the mystery (especially once all the usual scans reveal that there’s nothing wrong with their bodies). There’s nothing here for anyone to solve. On the contrary, “Sacred Deer” skips over all of the usual crap and goes straight to “Sophie’s Choice,” confronting Steven with the inevitability of his sacrifice.
Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou’s script is frustratingly oblique, even for these guys, but the movie really opens up when the pieces click into place and Steven’s kids begin competing for their father’s love. The story’s morally anarchic second half comes as a great relief after an hour of watching the director stray out of his comfort zone — it’s a noble attempt at (relative) naturalism, but Lanthimos doesn’t seem comfortable with the initial lack of craziness, and he punctures a lot of holes in the film while trying to thread the needle between morbid comedy and broiling horror.
The highs are high (Alicia Silverstone drops by for a quick cameo, and leaves with the movie’s best line), but too much of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is slack and unfocused in a way that such high-wire cinema can’t afford.
Fortunately, the filmmaker’s rare gift for brutal absurdity remains intact, and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” only gets funnier as it grows darker. As with every Lanthimos cast, all of the actors here are totally keyed in to the proper tone. Even the young ones know just what’s needed from them; Cassidy and Sulijic are both stellar as they sloth around the floor of their house, adjusting to their new situation like two kids who’ve gotten a little too involved in a game of make-believe.
But this is Keoghan’s show, and he makes the most of it. Martin is framed as a monster, but Keoghan plays him as more of a divine referee — to hate or even blame him would seem like shooting the messenger. He’s not a demon, he’s just a true believer. He’s a kid with acne, a kid who’s bad at looking people in the eye. When he watches “Groundhog Day” on TV, maybe he relates to Bill Murray’s character — a god, not the God, stuck in the same hell until he can share in the happiness that everyone else seems to enjoy.
And if “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” feels much sloppier and less sure of itself than anything that Lanthimos has made in a long time, that’s merely a symptom of the extent to which it takes him to a new place and encourages him to strain for new meaning. Lanthimos will never fully reconcile the tension between logic and emotion, but here — working in a country where emotion has so clearly come out ahead — he arrives at a satisfying conclusion that explains both absolutely everything and nothing at all: Things don’t have to make sense if we decide that we can make our own.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” premiered in Competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it later this year.