Starring Colin Farrell. Rated 14A
Partway into The Killing of a Sacred Deer, someone mirthlessly watches a scene from Groundhog Day, that classic comedy about being trapped in a cycle of endless repetition. No one can say Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos—writer-director of thorny arthouse fare like Alps and Dogtooth—isn’t well versed in mythology or Western tropes, since the scene is one in which Bill Murray asks Andie McDowell if she can be sure he isn’t god.
A god complex meets Sisyphean punishment as a skilled heart surgeon sees his life suddenly unravel. Returning from Lanthimos’s English-language debut, The Lobster, a bush-bearded Colin Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy. In an unnamed city (actually Cincinnati), he shares a super-deluxe, if anonymously appointed, suburban dwelling with his glamorous ophthalmologist wife, Anna (a cunningly controlled Nicole Kidman). Teenage daughter Kim (the U.K.’s Raffey Cassidy) has musical talent and longhaired preteen son Bob (Sunny Suljic) is a bit of a scamp.
For reasons initially hard to grasp, the good doctor spends an inordinate amount of time with a strange 16-year-old named Martin (young Irish actor Barry Keoghan, the eager stowaway on his father’s boat in Dunkirk). Sometimes the kid appears to be an idiot savant, other times just an idiot. Again, difficult to know for sure, since everyone speaks in polite commonplaces shot through with occasional bouts of TMI, as when, on their first meeting, Kim tells Martin she just had her first period.
In Lanthimos’s world, everyone seems to be imitating normal human behaviour, from the bloodless speech patterns to the Murphys’ sex life, a morbid riff on playing doctor. For about half of the two-hour movie, the filmmaker and his usual cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (who also shot the similarly austere Una) establish their family crisis with literally clinical detachment. Long, Kubrickian tracking shots take us down spotless hospital corridors as first Bob and then Kim collapse from mysterious maladies that only Martin seems to comprehend. He even predicts them, and tells the doc one of his clan has to go—for the good of the rest.
There’s something here about divine retribution, presumably for Steven’s misdeeds, and these take the movie into violent genre territory. (That title basically says, “Don’t mess with the Emperor’s livestock!”) But viewers are unlikely to feel fear, empathy, or other attendant emotions in a tale so determinedly drained of sense and sensibility. The sacrificial references to Iphigenia and Isaac elevate the tone but don’t really bring extra meaning to a tale that is cruel and vaguely satirical without really being about anything at all.