The Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has a thing for turning macabre hypotheticals into grotesque reality. For instance: If you had to live the rest of your life as an animal, which beast would be best? That was the premise of his last film, the dark, droll comedy The Lobster. Here's another one: If you had to kill one member of your family, whom would you choose? (Sorry, in-laws don't count).
Welcome to The Killing of a Sacred Deer, in which Lanthimos trades queasy comedy in for slow-burning psychological horror. Sacred Deer aims for discomfort, and it reaches its goal from the very first shot, a close-up of a heart surgery in progress. The surgeon is Steven Murphy, played by Colin Farrell underneath a salt-and-pepper beard that covers most of his face. Steven has a wife (Nicole Kidman), two kids (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic) and an odd little friend, a dead-eyed 16-year-old named Martin. It seems Steven operated on Martin's dad a while back. The patient didn't make it. Now it's time for excruciating payback.
Very little is straightforward in a Lanthimos movie; he might be oddest filmmaker out there getting consistent distribution, and there's something oddly refreshing in seeing his Bizarro World style and stories use movie stars to reach a mass audience. Please note that you may not be a part of that mass audience. Sacred Deer is far from a standard psycho-revenge yarn, and its serrated edge is nothing like even the nominal art films you're likely to see. Lanthimos creates laboratories of human behavior, as clinical in their own way as the antiseptic corridors of Steven's hospital. Even sexuality, which plays a big part here, becomes a dispassionate formality.
The characters speak in the flat, heavily enunciated cadences common to David Mamet: "Did you get a haircut?" "Do you like it?" "It looks great." There's something of a Brechtian distancing effect here. Lanthimos refuses to let us get lost in the narrative. (Kidman is very good at this sort of thing, as she showed in Lars von Trier's Dogville). He reminds us that we're watching a movie, through stilted line delivery, extreme close-ups and wide-angle shots that create a series of theatrical prosceniums. The score, a combination of astringent string compositions and undulating bass drum, adds to the alienation. Lanthimos' wicked premises do the rest, taking supernatural occurrences for granted as everyday phenomena, slowly pulling us into an alternate universe.
Everyone seems to be in on the approach except Barry Keoghan, who plays Martin not as an abstraction but as a troubled, charming, dangerous kid. It's a fine performance but it's a little out of sync with the rest of the film, a little more literal than everyone else's. He comes off as a real person amid carefully drawn representations. Martin is the outlier, the straw that stirs this toxic drink, so maybe he's supposed to stand out. But the performance and the character become a distraction as the film heads down the stretch.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a classic example of a film that ties its plot directly into its themes, making it hard to write about without running into those modern bugaboos known as spoilers. As you watch it, if you watch it, give some thought to the idea of atonement and amends. Steven, we learn, is three years sober, and he might have been drunk when he operated on Martin's dad. Martin's idea of amends falls somewhere between a pound of flesh and a Biblical plague. That's life in the land of Lanthimos, where extreme, fantastical circumstances hold a mirror up to the human animal in all its folly and horror.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (B+)
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Rated R (for disturbing and violent sexual content, some graphic nudity and language). 121 mins. At the Angelika Dallas and Cinemark West Plano.