With his fifth feature, and his first shot in America, the Greek writer-director-absurdist Yorgos Lanthimos has reached the intersection of tremendous skill and vague frustration.
There’s nothing vague about the narrative of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” Its strangeness is crystal clear. It plays out in ways both sardonically funny and extremely cruel. The acting is uniformly superb within the filmmaker’s preferred, emotionally deadpan parameters; the telling of the tale, a contemporary riff on the myth of Agamemnon and his ill-fated daughter, holds you in its grasp, even if you don’t know what to make of it.
As much as I admire “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster,” two of his earlier exercises in societal cruelty and the blackest of black comedy, this one’s more of an artful dodge than a waking nightmare. It’s tough to shake though.
Lanthimos trained in the theater, and a quick look at the most recent production (Chekhov’s “Platonov”) on his website proves he’s a wizard at physically activating claustrophobic scenarios. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a small-cast morality play spun out on the screen. We first see the heart surgeon played by a crafty, wormy Colin Farrell in the operating room. (An extreme reverse zoom of the bloody pumping heart sets the tone of things.) Later he chats with another doctor (Bill Camp, just right in his bland provocations) about the merits of a metal watchband versus a leather one. We’re in a generic hospital in EveryCity, U.S.A.; Lanthimos shot “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” in Cincinnati with an eye toward making it look as clinical as possible.
Barry Keoghan, the young, freckled actor with the heartbreakingly expressive face in the recent “Dunkirk,” here shows a vastly different set of skills as the story’s riddle, Martin. The heart surgeon appears at first to be a surrogate father to the boy, buying him presents, tolerating his sudden, unplanned workplace visits. (Alicia Silverstone plays the boy’s mother.) Martin is invited to dine at the home of the surgeon and his opthamologist wife (Nicole Kidman). Their two children (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic) take to him straight off; the older sibling declares her love for this boy, in fact. The introductory small talk includes information about this girl’s period and that boy’s underarm hair.
Gradually, the film reveals what’s behind Martin’s interest in the surgeon’s line of work, what he feels he’s owed, and why. Plenty of reviews coming out of the festival circuit have dealt with these later plot developments. I’ll go easy on those. It’s enough to know that a life has been lost, and another life must be taken in trade.
As always (and this was true even in Lanthimos’ one major flub to date, “Alps”), the actors must make sense of the director’s eerily calm stance on the events depicted. Farrell is especially good; his quick, urgent conversational rhythms give “Sacred Deer” a needed pace. Keoghan seems like a normal enough sociopath, which is precisely what Lanthimos is after. The movie could be taking place anywhere, anytime, but at the moment millions of us have become grimly accustomed to normalizing psychotic behavior. At its best, the film creates an unsafe space for audiences to put it all for a couple of hours.
There is a limit, I think, to the tightly controlled, barely acknowledged madness “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” inhabits. The airless quality to the exchanges can be bizarrely funny, and as the doctor’s dilemma turns ever darker, the screws tighten. Lanthimos and his co-writer, Efthymis Filippou, draw upon Greek myth, the Theatre of Cruelty and Theatre of the Absurd and, in the film world, Stanley Kubrick and Michael Haneke. These are formidable, icy influences, and Lanthimos is a formidable enough talent to use them to his own ends. And yet the strangeness this time feels more studied. I wonder if he can find a way to surprise and disorient us anew as he continues to make movies. I hope so.
And I hope we’ll get the chance to see his stage work here in America.
“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (3 stars)
Colin Farrell stars as a charismatic surgeon who is forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice after his life starts to fall apart, when the behavior of a teenage boy he has taken under his wing turns sinister. Nicole Kidman and Alicia Silverstone co-star.
Rating: R, for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and language