Animal corpses tend to pile up with alarming regularity in the films of Yorgos Lanthimos — just ask the cat in “Dogtooth,” or the dog in “The Lobster.” (You can’t, sorry. They’re dead.) So imagine my surprise that no antlered beasts are slaughtered in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” a lightly blood-spattered but technically immaculate nightmare of a movie that invites us to cackle alongside its director into the void.
The title, thankfully, is not a plot summary but a reference to the tale of Agamemnon, who killed a deer from Artemis’ grove and was ordered to sacrifice his own daughter as a punishment. Even without that knowledge, you might be able to divine the story’s mythological roots — not just because Lanthimos hails from Greece and has a regionally specific taste for tragedy, but also because his films often play like behavioral experiments devised by unfathomably cruel gods.
That was the case with “The Lobster,” an absurdist, melancholy indictment of contemporary Western mating rituals and a major breakthrough for Lanthimos, proving that, after a few brilliantly unsettling Greek productions, including the Oscar-nominated “Dogtooth,” his trademark blend of satirical ingenuity and formal severity could flourish in the English language. It was a triumph, too, for Colin Farrell, who discovered a rich sad-sack poetry in the role of a divorcé forced, by the laws of a very strange land, to find a new wife.
Farrell is back for more high-toned punishment and bizarre ultimatums in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” this time playing a man who has long since settled down. Steven Murphy is a heart surgeon with an optometrist wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), two bright, well-behaved kids and a suburban mansion large enough to accommodate the cavernous, high-angle compositions devised by the cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis. It’s a world that looks a lot like ours (the film was shot in Cincinnati) but, as always with Lanthimos, stubbornly refuses to sound anything like it.
This is due not only to the soundtrack, with its shuddering violins and its mighty choral blasts of Schubert, Bach and Ligeti, but also to the flat, stilted rhythms and deadpan non sequiturs of the characters’ speech. You might be slightly bewildered by an early scene in which Steven and his anesthesiologist (Bill Camp) dwell at length on the subject of wristwatches, specifically the merits of metal and leather straps. But things advance to another level of creepiness when Steven has a slightly different version of the same conversation with Martin (a superb Barry Keoghan), a teenager whom he occasionally meets for visits at and outside the hospital.
Are they speaking in code? Are the watch straps meant to signify something, like the inescapable grip of time? Even after two viewings, I have no idea. My suspicion is that they signify nothing, except perhaps the banality of small talk, the way polite conversation and other forms of social tyranny serve to stifle the unruliness of real human feelings. This becomes clear when Steven, showing Martin an almost-untoward degree of attention, invites him over to the house for dinner. “What a charming boy,” Anna says later that night, the slight lift in Kidman’s otherwise flat delivery indicating precisely the opposite.
Once Martin returns the favor and invites Steven over for dinner with him and his mother (Alicia Silverstone in a memorable one-scene performance), his demands on the surgeon’s time become ever more insistent, his random hospital visits increasingly unwelcome. Amid so much inexplicable menace, perhaps the most eerily credible subplot involves the Murphys’ 14-year-old daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy), who develops an intense, gently requited crush on Martin. Meanwhile, their 12-year-old son, Bob (Sunny Suljic), is suddenly immobilized by a mysterious illness, the origins and implications of which baffle Steven and his medical colleagues.
I’m reluctant to say much more about the plot, which is at once deeply twisted and startlingly straightforward. In any case, while the Murphys’ fate may be of enormous consequence to them — even if their unnaturally calm, composed expressions suggest otherwise — Lanthimos himself seems less interested in what happens than in how it happens. With cunning precision and a nastiness that seeps into the movie like a slow-acting poison, he turns a domestic-medical nightmare into a feverish exercise in style.
The atmosphere quivers with menace, and the threat of ghastly violence seems to lurk behind every impeccably lighted corner. Lanthimos evokes both the sinuous psychological horror of Roman Polanski and the icy technical precision of Stanley Kubrick, particularly “The Shining.” The camera tracks and prowls the sleek, shiny corridors of Steven’s hospital in much the same way Kubrick filmed the labyrinthine hallways of the Overlook Hotel, and it’s probably no coincidence that Suljic bears a faint resemblance to the young Danny Lloyd. Kidman, for her part, might remind you of “Eyes Wide Shut,” particularly when she strips down for some mildly kinky marital hanky-panky.
Farrell and Kidman recently enacted an entirely different on-screen dynamic in Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled,” a Civil War drama that made plausible accommodation for Farrell’s Irish accent. He makes no attempt to hide it here, either, and if neither he nor Kidman (suppressing her own Australian inflections) seems entirely at home in the movie’s vision of sun-kissed American suburbia, that disjunction only enhances the weirdness of the story, which Lanthimos has carefully positioned several degrees south of reality.
Keoghan, who played the youngest and most vulnerable character in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” is positively skin-crawling here as Martin, who increasingly comes across less like a teenage boy than a force of implacable, unambiguous evil. Fittingly, if no less creepily, the Murphys themselves don’t always seem entirely human. They may bleed like the rest of us, as their ruptured flesh and distressed eyeballs can attest. But they are essentially phantom projections, sentient pawns in a vague but rigid allegorical thesis.
A playful art-house punisher in the reputably disreputable tradition of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier, Lanthimos signals his intentions with an early shot of Steven taking off his stained surgical gloves, as direct an indication as any of a man with blood on his hands. And in Farrell’s soulfully stoic performance, Steven becomes a convenient stand-in for white male complacency, the moral idiocy and cowardice bred by a life of Western privilege.
An evergreen target, to be sure. But as it marches its characters ever so slowly toward a suitably despairing climax, the movie feels increasingly like a self-satisfied but unsustained provocation, a rich display of craft in service of secondhand shocks and ideas. Lanthimos effectively strikes the same harsh, dissonant chord for two hours, and it’s a virtuoso performance, even if “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” — a more fitting title might have been “The Shooting of a Barreled Fish” — winds up feeling closer to monotony than myth.
‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’
Rating: R, for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and language
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles