In the old myth, King Agamemnon kills a sacred deer. It is a beloved animal of the goddess Artemis, who as payback demands that Agamemnon make a brutal choice: either sacrifice his eldest daughter and be freed up to fight the Trojan War, or give up the war to spare his daughter’s life. It’s a decision that reveals the kind of man he is.
In the new dark maybe-comedy The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is accused by a teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan) of negligently killing a patient and, as a result, is forced to make an even grimmer compromise. Dr. Murphy must decide whether to watch his wife and each of his two children die slow, agonizingly patterned deaths—which begin with sudden paralysis of the limbs and end with profuse bleeding from the eyes—or sacrifice only one of their lives and spare the others. His son gets sick first, then his daughter—soon, his wife. Tragedy is inevitable. No matter what, Steven’s accuser will get his pound of flesh. But how?
They’re all fucked either way, is the takeaway. But of course they are: This is a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. Lanthimos, the increasingly popular Greek auteur, doesn’t tell stories so much as he imposes rigid conditions from the outset and calls them a premise—and a style. His movies are laboratories, wards of moral and behavioral chaos. They are controlled environments in which characters’ inner lives and desires unspool or devolve with an absurdist sense of humor and the tragic, but also darkly humorous, weight of inevitability. In Dogtooth, a surprise Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011, an authoritarian father tries to prevent his three adult children from having exposure to the outside world. Surprise: It doesn’t work. In last year’s dystopian The Lobster, Lanthimos’s first English-language film, single people are given 45 days to either find a mate or, should they fail, be turned into an animal of their choosing.
It doesn’t matter how the singletons of The Lobster will be converted into animals—just as, in Sacred Deer, it doesn’t matter how Steven’s accuser can seemingly inflict paralysis at will. To wonder how he does it is to ask the movie to be grounded in a recognizable reality. But the movie is named for a myth: It is openly premised on artifice. To quote Martin himself: “Do you understand? It’s metaphorical. My example. It’s a metaphor.”
Martin is kind of like Lanthimos in that way, coy about his intentions at first, then all too eager to declare and re-declare what he’s after. Sacred Deer is suffused, from the start, with an air of grim mystery. It opens with the sight of an exposed heart beating away during surgery; it quickly morphs into a series of long, tracking-shot tours through white, harshly lit hospital hallways. In the world of Sacred Deer, we either hover over the characters or loom just below them, alternating, fiercely, between feelings like gods and like their subjects. It keeps us, the audience, a little out of sorts. But the characters emerge anchored in the aquarium of Lanthimos’s style.
That style extends, as always with this director, to language and behavior. Steven is a heart surgeon and his wife, Dr. Anna Murphy (Nicole Kidman), is an ophthalmologist. They are a smart, handsome couple with beautiful children and a house that looks more like three houses conjoined. The closest thing they have to a secret is that Steven once dealt with alcoholism; he even performed drunk on the job. Otherwise, this is a well-adjusted, well-off family—or seems so, but for the ways they talk. “Our daughter started menstruating last week,” say one of the Murphys, casually, at a black-tie dinner. It must be true: Later, while flirting with Martin, their daughter repeats it.
They aren’t robots, but Lanthimos’s characters nevertheless come off as affectless, efficient, and direct, as if they’d all woken up one day and decided to speak like characters in a Don DeLillo novel. In bed, Anna lies dead-still, as if she’s been expertly anaesthetized, hospital-style, Steven’s preference for love-making. It’s a throwback to the mechanical cunnilingus of Dogtooth. Rather than lifelessness, such an open display of suburban kink suggests, well, desire. But desire is what these characters seem unable to express. Language, in the Lanthimos universe, emerges as an efficient means to an ever-transparent end. Some forms of desire, on the other hand, can never be transparent.
Save, of course, for Martin’s. As depicted by Keoghan, with his blank innocence and distressingly infantile face, Martin is a kid with a seriously sociopathic chip on his shoulder. He is the son of a man Steven operated on some time ago who died of an arrhythmia. Since then, Steven and Martin have been meeting semi-regularly—Steven out of some unspoken sense of guilt, Martin out of some ostensible need for a father figure. Martin makes as if to set up Steven with the teenager’s own mother (played in a brief, melancholic turn by Alicia Silverstone), and maybe it’s Steven’s rejection that sets Martin’s plan into motion. One morning, the Murphys’ son wakes up unable to use his legs. Soon after, their daughter collapses at school. “I don’t know if what’s happening is fair,” Martin tells Anna, “but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.”
Insofar as it’s a complicated, nasty plan, the movie convinces you of Martin’s desire for vengeance. But I don’t know. A desire for sacred vengeance feels intriguingly excessive within this world—raw and angry in a way that throws the movie into relief. But maybe it’s too excessive. Much about Lanthimos’s approach feels deliberately paper-thin, as if, since it’s all a metaphor anyway, he can be as vague as he pleases. On the other hand, the motivations of Lanthimos’s characters tend to be simple, even brash, expressions of who they are and what they want, and the director finds the wry comedy in that. The Murphys’ son, for example, doesn’t want to be sacrificed, so he starts to get around to the chores his father had been pestering him about, like cutting his hair and watering the plants. Lanthimos makes it comically pathetic, with the boy doing a “Look dad, no legs!” act as he crawls from chore to chore. He and his sister aren’t visibly broken up by the choice Steven faces, despite knowing one of them might die. They’re desperate, to be sure, but the emotions don’t automatically heighten. The movie’s style demands that everyone appear sort of calm.
Is Steven really responsible for the death of Martin’s father? Does it matter? Watching Martin go to work on the Murphys’ lives is like watching a bull be set loose in a china shop, which is what’s thrilling about the movie, and limiting, too. Lanthimos creates worlds in his movies that just beg to be toppled over like towers of Jenga blocks: It all feels so precarious. Indeed, the movie is at its most boring when Lanthimos goes for an operatic gothicism that overwhelms the proceedings but doesn’t inform them. He’s at his best reckoning with the nit and grit of the stakes of this world as he’s imagined it. How is it possible that a wife playing dead to try and fail to seduce her husband can feel so weirdly, strenuously tragic? That’s the enduring curiosity, even value, of Lanthimos’s world, even if his movies don’t always properly exploit it.