Like Quentin Tarantino, Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos seems fascinated by power games, the crueler the better. In Dogtooth (2009), parents abuse their power to give their children an absurdly false vision of the world. In The Lobster (2015), a dystopian government exercises sadistic control over its citizens. These are movies in which winning the day involves bloody, unthinkable sacrifices — Pyrrhic victories.
That's certainly true in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a Palme d'Or nominee at the Cannes Film Festival. While The Lobster imagined a whole society of coercion, the power play here is an intimate, domestic one, revealed by dread-filled inches. In fact, it will take audiences about half of the film to realize just what kind of scenario they're watching.
Colin Farrell plays heart surgeon Steven Murphy; Nicole Kidman is his ophthalmologist wife; Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic are their children. Their interactions are bland and sunny, their home photo-spread worthy, but something is off.
Steven meets regularly in a diner with Martin (Barry Keoghan), a glum, self-effacing teenager to whom he offers expensive gifts. While we don't initially know if we're witnessing a mentorship or something more sinister, we may assume Steven is in control of these mysterious interactions. We are wrong.
Viewers who add up the film's title and a passing allusion will observe that the story is a loose reenactment of a Greek myth. But Sacred Deer is mythology by way of "The Twilight Zone" or as reimagined by the world's most nihilist sketch-comedy troupe. Every twist the plot takes is dark and absurd; some could make viewers gasp in horror and laugh at once.
Lanthimos seems to want to imagine the havoc that a god — a small-minded, petty, nonetheless divinely powerful figure — could wreak in the modern world. But, by viewing all his characters from a god's lofty standpoint — often literally, using overhead shots and wide-angle lenses — he makes it difficult for us to care whether they survive the experience.
As in the director's previous films, the characters here speak and interact in stilted, non-naturalistic ways. ("My daughter just got her first period," Steven announces, socializing with a colleague.) Faced with terrible choices, they analyze them with cold logic. In short, the Murphys come off as satirical exaggerations of upper-crust cluelessness, not as rational agents struggling to extricate themselves from a tragic scenario.
Because we don't take the characters seriously, nothing on screen has much impact — not even when Lanthimos pulls out the big guns of provocation. Suffice it to say this film defies some of the same taboos as Mother!, but without inflicting the same degree of emotional devastation.
Played by Keoghan with just the right mix of inarticulate sheepishness and sly brutality, Martin is by far the film's most compelling character. Just as he plays his power games with the Murphys, so Lanthimos plays his with the audience. And perhaps there's something to be said for a movie that manages to annoy and upset as many jaded filmgoers as this one does, starting with its very first shot — a close-up of an exposed beating heart.
But nothing approaching tragic catharsis is to be found here. Lanthimos works best as a satirist, poking holes in the world's power structures; in this film, he asks us to laugh at the victims of an implacable force. No matter how privileged and vacuous the Murphys may be — and they are — that just makes us feel like bad sports.