Doctor Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a surgeon specializing in open-heart operations. He has a beautiful wife named Anna (Nicole Kidman), herself a medical professional, and two children named Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). But Stephen also has a secret: several years ago a man died under his scalpel due to a mistake resulting from Stephen drinking before the operation. Although he consciously denies it, Stephen feels guilty about the death and tries to make up for it by mentoring the man’s son, Martin (Barry Keoghan). But when Bob suddenly develops an unknown disease, Stephen finds that his sins are beginning to catch up to him.
Unlike his previous film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is for the most part a drama film rather than a comedy, although it still possesses the occasional dark comedy moment. Otherwise, it shares many of the same characteristics as The Lobster- a premise/setting which is essentially magical realism, a highly affected and dry performance style from the cast, and a deep underlying sense of unease and disjointedness. Also like The Lobster, it is unceasingly and unflinchingly pessimistic about human nature.
However, this last element is also this film’s great weakness. The Lobster’s dark comedy thrived because it made us laugh at the absurdity of human relationships. The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s drama fails because that same pessimism becomes all consuming. Not only is there really no one to root for in the film, but the any seeming lack of any theme in the plot (other than that humans are awful) means that by the credits roll you feel like you just spent two hours getting to know a cast of terrible people for no purpose.
There are many ways to make a film with a completely unlikable cast and dour tone enjoyable, or at least interesting to watch. You can use it to say something meaningful about human existence, like American Psycho. You can make the characters complex and compelling, like The Hateful Eight. And of course you can make the whole thing funny, like The Lobster. But The Killing of a Sacred Deer does not succeed in any of these things. The film says nothing about the human condition other than that people are the worst, which is apparent from the first ten minutes. The characters almost all come off as creepy and unlikable and don’t give us any reason to root for them. And although it has a little bit of comedy, it’s nowhere near enough to carry the rest of the film.
In short, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a slog to get through, and there simply isn’t enough pay off to make that slog worth it. Its certainly not a horrible film- its not even the worst film I’ve seen recently. Its simply not worth the investment in time, ticket money, or mental fortitude required to watch such terrible characters. Stick to something more fun, or at least something more interesting.