You might think from the startling opening shot of a human heart exposed and beating, that the sacred deer is about to be killed. It is an omen of what is to come but that shot is ostensibly to establish the fact that Steven Murphy (Farrell) is a heart surgeon – and a very successful one, which is evident from his lifestyle.
He lives in a beautifully appointed mansion with his elegant wife Anna (Kidman), their daughter Kim (Cassidy), who has just started menstruating – as they insist on telling their friends – and Kim’s younger brother Bob (Sunny Suljic), whose only fault is he refuses to cut his hair, which flows nearly to his shoulders. All in all, a perfect life.
Outside of this perfect home life Steven has befriended a fatherless teenager Martin (Keoghan), for whom he buys expensive gifts. A selfless gesture towards one less fortunate than he? Actually no. When Steven eventually introduces Martin to his family, we discover the boy’s father died on Steven’s operating table – and that is where that odd title comes in.
The clue is in a passing reference in the film to the Greek fable of Iphigenia, whose father Agamemnon accidentally kills a sacred deer belonging to the goddess Artemis, who then demands the blood sacrifice of his daughter in return. Martin too demands the sacrifice of one of Steven’s family members as compensation for the death of his father – the “sacred deer” – and he does it by putting a curse on them, whereby if Steven fails to do his bidding, they will all die in three stages, beginning with the loss of their ability to walk.
The perfection of Steven’s life is almost unreal. As well as his family life and environment, the hospital where he works is a palace of immaculate sterility – long, gleaming white corridors and spotless offices. The only sign of vibrant life is the blood in the operating theatre. At home Steven and Anna display almost no strong emotion until Martin’s curse starts to kick in. Even their lovemaking is cold and formalized.
Martin lives not in abject poverty but in comparison to the Murphys in a “not so nice house in a not so nice part of town”, as he describes it. When his mother (Alicia Silverstone) makes advances to him, Steven runs a mile, while conversely Kim is attracted to the life force in Martin. And then Bob falls victim to an undiagnosable condition where he loses the use of his legs.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous film “The Lobster” was also a bizarre and intriguing contemporary fable. This time he is combining Greek tragedy with a modern “Grimm” fairy tale on the theme of the unequal society. It is also a powerful and elegant take on the horror movie genre, beautifully acted, sometimes shocking and very unsettling. it certainly holds the attention.