The new effort from director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is like an advanced course in the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic style. The movie, which expands its release this week, is at turns stranger, its outlook bleaker, and some of its laughs harder earned than his previous, The Lobster, which — I’ll remind you — is about a society that turns single people into animals (of their choosing, of course).
To say too much about Sacred Deer‘s story, evening hinting at just how far the movie takes its premise, would be to ruin most of the fun. Let’s just say that a family, led by Colin Farrell’s heart surgeon and his wife (Nicole Kidman), undergo an escalating drama timed to the arrival of a mysterious boy in their lives.
That boy, Martin, is played by 25-year-old Irish actor Barry Keoghan, whose distinct nose and squinting glare may help you recognize him. Earlier this year, he played the personification of innocence sacrificed as George, the doomed boy on Mark Rylance’s yacht, in Dunkirk.
The softness in Keoghan’s face, which lent him a wide-eyed purity in the Christopher Nolan movie, is used to much more sinister effect in Sacred Deer. Playing a character nearly a decade younger than himself, Keoghan drops his natural accent and raises its pitch to cast Martin as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His performance is odd and hilarious and perplexingly humane despite everything happened around him, and it’s nearly impossible to tear your eyes away from him.
The last year of his life is something a much younger Keoghan could never have imagined for himself. He grew up in Dublin, in a time and part of the city suffering from large swaths of heroin addiction, his mother included. Later in life, when he’d watch Leonardo DiCaprio in Basketball Diaries, the movie would strike a nerve. “It’s touching, watching that — especially the scene when he’s going to his mother’s house and she won’t let him in, as much as she wants to,” Keoghan says. “It reminds me of home kind of stuff. Everyone at home was caught in heroin.”
Keoghan would find a more stable home life at 12, when his grandmother took him and his brother in. He found comfort in school production, pretending to be someone else, but a Christmas play done for a laugh wasn’t signs of a future career. “Acting is not a thing where I’m from,” Keoghan says. “Finishing school is a big thing. Not a lot of people finish school.” But the plays had given him the kind of confidence that can and should only come from that age. When he saw a flyer looking for inexperience child actors, he had one thought: “Hell, I can do that.”
That casting notice led to work and then eventually to The Factory, a Dublin acting collective run in part by Jim and Kirsten Sheridan that’s now known as Bow Street. The Factory, which was housed in exactly the kind of building you’d imagine, became an after-school activity for Keoghan. There he learned the craft alongside pupils like Sing Street‘s Jack Reynor and watched the classic movies that would act as a blueprint for the coming years.
“When I watched those old movies, I saw class,” Keoghan says. “Just how they were, how the ladies were, how they dressed themselves, and how the men spoke to ladies. I was learning a bunch of stuff, not just from acting, but watching how you treat a woman right. It was a different way back then. I remember my granny talking about my grandad. I never got to meet him, but I like to think of him like that. He was a dockland worker. I like to think of him of someone like that, On the Waterfront and stuff. It touched a lot of stuff like that for me.”
Slowly but steadily, work came his way. Keoghan booked jobs in Ireland and then England, the natural progression of an Irish actor, much to the delight of his grandmother, among others. “She describes it as, ‘He does the thing on the telly,'” he says. It was ’71, Yann Demange’s tense drama starring Jack O’Connell, when Keoghan really began to see an uptick in his career, but nothing would compare to Dunkirk.
Keoghan originally auditioned for the film without a specific role as his target. He just knew that Christopher Nolan was looking for young actors to be in his evacuation of Dunkirk movie, so for his taped reading, Keoghan toyed with a TV remote just out of frame, taking the batteries out and replacing them, mocking the loading and unloading of a pistol. After a little while after he sent off the video, the call came. “I got a call that Chris Nolan wants you to go over. I was like, ‘Cool.'”
In the span of less than six months, Keoghan has appeared in two of the best movies of the year, and if you ask him, that was always the plan. On his phone, he keeps a list of directors, performers, and companies he’s determined to work with. His artistic ambitions are much more Dublin than Hollywood, and it doesn’t come as a surprise when he mentions that he boxes every day.
“I want stories that tackle things,” Keoghan says of his hopes for the next few years. “I want stories where you either hate it or love it. I want to do movies like that, where it’s not show and tell, where it’s not ‘This is it, and now you reveal the ending and that’s that.’ I want one where you walk away from it, and you go, ‘F—, I really didn’t like that’ or ‘I don’t know. I liked that one.'”