In ancient Greek mythology, King Agamemnon was punished by Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. The only way to remove the punishment was to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos offers his modern-day take on this old tale in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” Playing the part of Agamemnon is Colin Farrell as Dr. Steven Murphy, a respected heart surgeon who has befriended a teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan), who turns out to be Steven’s Artemis.
You see, when Martin was a little boy he lost his father during heart surgery. Whether correctly or not, Martin blames Dr. Murphy. Perhaps feeling responsible, Steven positions himself as a pseudo father figure to young Martin – even inviting him over to his house for dinner. Although only vaguely aware of one another, Martin attends school with Steven’s daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy). Steven’s middle school son is Bob (Sunny Suljic), and his wife is an ophthalmologist named Anna, played by Nicole Kidman.
Martin and Kim begin seeing more of one another, but Martin’s primary friendship in the Murphy household is Steven. From the beginning, something is amiss with their relationship. We can’t quite put our finger on it, but it just doesn’t seem right. Perhaps it’s the stilted, mannered David Mamet-esque dialogue, provided by Lanthimos and his frequent screenwriter Efthymis Filippou. Or it could be that almost all of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is shot with a wide-angle lens, courtesy of another Lanthimos collaborator, cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis.
Steven’s circumstances take a turn for the worse when Martin invites him to his house for dinner. After Martin retires for the evening, his widowed mother, played by Alicia Silverstone, makes a pass at Steven. Soon young Bob loses the use of his legs, and Martin hastily explains that Steven’s family is under a curse. A la Agamemnon, Steven must sacrifice a member of his own family – to “even the score,” as Martin explains.
But Steven is a man of science. His life is orderly and clean. Indeed, his house is as spotless as his operating room. Steven doesn’t believe in curses. He takes his son to every possible specialist he can think of. He convenes a meeting of all his fellow surgeons. Everything checks out fine. So how can Martin’s curse be explained? The fact that it cannot confounds Steven. Anna is either more believing or more willing to play along with Martin.
Soon, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” devolves into a bloody mess of a film that is reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s recent “mother!,” in which Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem played a young couple representative of God and the virgin Mary. In both cases (“Sacred Deer” and “mother!”), I would love to discuss the meanings and allegories with fellow viewers – but I do not want to watch either picture a second time. It’s one thing to challenge viewers (the way Stanley Kubrick did in “A Clockwork Orange”); it’s another to offend viewers. And that’s what Aronofsky and, to a lesser extent, Lanthimos have done.
As with “mother!,” “Sacred Deer” is ambitious, but it’s an arduous journey. The cleanliness and orderliness of the opening scenes contrast vividly with the bloody closeups during the final act. In my opinion, an over-the-top shoot-‘em-up like last year’s “The Accountant” goes down easier than the medical-style mug-shots Lanthimos offers up.
I respect what Lanthimos has done the way I respect Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” I appreciate that Stravinsky pushed the accepted conventions of music into new boundaries. But listening to it does not entertain me, and I don’t care if I ever hear it again. The same applies to “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” It’s quite a work of art, and Lanthimos has certainly poured a lot of effort into it. But I did not find it entertaining, nor do I care to watch it again.