The deer of the title could be the patient killed by Colin Farrell's surgeon in a boozy botched operation, whose heart we see pulsating in the pre-title sequence, all fatty ventricles and oozing tissue. Or it could be the family member who’s sacrificed in the film’s denouement. Who cares? It’s these ponderous questions that will lead many to hate Yorgos Lanthimos’ film – its contrived performances, thundering portentousness, and faux-profundities.
If you can get past this moral seriousness, there’s a biting attack on scientism lying beneath. In The Lobster (2015), a reductive attitude to love leads to a dystopian universe, where everyone is forced into couples (the only productive human unit?). In The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017), we occupy a world that’s less obviously distinct from our own, but, in look and manner, it’s of a piece with Lobster’s: people communicate in an affectless, stilted way and all the surfaces are clean and modern. In Lobster the simplistic world of reproductive fatalism is punctured by real love, which it can’t contain. In Deer it’s ripped apart by equally primordial emotions: hatred, revenge, and the desire, as expressed by the sinister Martin, for ‘the closest I can think of to justice’. Martin channels these emotions into destructive magic.
The surgeon's quietly crazed reaction to magic – his family mysteriously losing the ability to walk – illustrates the misguided arrogance of scientism. He orders tests to be run – again and again. He admonishes the system that’s incapable of helping his family. He assumes the inexplicable is psychosomatic. Experts and consultants are summoned. When Farrell realises he must play his tormentor’s game and choose someone to save he goes to the school principal and asks which performs better in class, as if he can outsource a moral dilemma to an specialist with the right data-set. At the moment of truth, Farrell employs chance to avoid making a decision.
Even the couple’s sex life has the quality of a dehumanised experiment. The surgeon's wife (a glacial Nicole Kidman) lies, lifeless, waiting for his touch. She gives the instruction: ‘general anaesthetic.’ In Lanthimos’ wintry kingdom, even desire is calibrated through procedure.