It’s hard to think of a young actor who’s embodied characters as diametrically opposed as the ones Barry Keoghan plays in Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In the former, he’s George, a tousled teenager from a seaside town who jumps at the chance to make himself a hero. From the instant you see him on the docks, you want to take him under your wing. He makes a similarly strong first impression in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but it takes much longer to understand how you feel about him and why. All you know at first about Martin—the young man he plays in Yorgos Lanthimos’ screw-tightening morality play—is that there’s something off about him and his friendship with a middle-aged surgeon, Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell).
Martin and Steven meet regularly over meals at a neighborhood diner—not, come to think of it, unlike the one where we left Farrell’s character in Lanthimos’ The Lobster—and they take long walks by the river in a gleaming but nondescript American city (actually Cincinnati). Steven’s attitude toward him seems to be paternal, or maybe avuncular. He lectures him about the world and, after having a long conversation with a hospital colleague about the virtues of metal watchbands, gives Martin his old watch, providing a pretext for him to buy himself a new one. But there’s something stilted about the way they talk to each other, not just formal but alienated, as if they were doing a practice run-through before the actual take.
Over their past several movies, Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou have pushed increasingly into the realm of abstraction and parable. In their 2009 arthouse breakthrough Dogtooth, a family walled their children off from the world and told stories about the fearsome creatures outside to keep them from straying. Now Lanthimos and Filippou build walls around the films themselves. The Lobster’s vision of a (presumed) future in which people who fail at heterosexual coupling are surgically turned into animals was so absurdist that its deader-than-deadpan approach deepened the joke. Its characters simply accepted that their inability to pair off might result in them being condemned to life as a sheep. But as The Killing of a Sacred Deer moves into the realm of legend, that abstraction starts to suffocate it.
There is something pleasantly perverse about the Athens-born director waiting until his first movie filmed in America to make his first Greek myth. Its plot, as the film’s title hints, is a riff on the story of Iphigenia, whose father Agamemnon is compelled to sacrifice her to soothe the wrath of an angry goddess. There are no gods in Lanthimos’ cosmos, but there is Martin, whose anger—the elusive thing that’s been lurking behind his strangely insistent relationship with Steven—dates back to an incident involving the older man and his late father. And as in the myth, the surgeon’s family is the only price that he will accept.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s magisterial staging—it was shot by Thimios Bakatakis and designed by Jade Healy—inevitably calls up comparisons to Stanley Kubrick, and the casting of Nicole Kidman as Steven’s wife, Anna, feels almost like a private joke. (If so, it’s a dirty one: In place of Tom Cruise’s orgiastic descent, Farrell’s Steven has his wife strip and play dead while he jerks off next to her.) There’s a grin running through the whole movie, almost a smirk, one that grows tighter and less amusing as it turns toward decidedly nonabstract consequences. The Murphys’ children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic) get pulled into Martin’s orbit as well, and the film starts to mutate from Kubrick homage to one of Michael Haneke’s endurance tests, crossed with some of Lars von Trier’s more blunt provocations.
As in The Lobster, there’s an obduracy at the heart of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, an impenetrable core around which the movie is built. Martin eventually seems to have Steven’s entire family under his spell, so that what he imagines to be justice takes vengeful shape in the real world, but is it a kind of mass hypnosis, some unseen biochemical subterfuge, or the belated intervention of some divine moral force? Those questions don’t seem to matter to Lanthimos, nor even does the question of whether Steven has committed the wrongs Martin attributes to him. The whole movie starts to feel like a dare or elaborate game, the characters shuffling obediently about the board with no rules to guide them. Myths grow out of a need to understand the world, and to pass on an understanding of how to make our way through it, but Lanthimos just teaches you to be more cautious about his next film.