In Nara Park, Japan, spotted deer were long believed to possess divine properties. To cause the death of one, even by accident, was a capital offense. Halfway across the world, in ancient Greece, King Agamemnon learned this the hard way, invoking the wrath of the gods for killing one of Artemis’ beloved deer, for which he was obliged to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia. The obvious lesson: Don’t kill deer. But what if the deed is already done? That’s the premise of “Dogtooth” director Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest ruthless allegory, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” which has nothing at all to do with wildlife, holy or otherwise — although it does feature two key scenes in which a hunting rifle plays a critical role.
The title is a metaphor, as is the film’s central dramatic predicament (Lanthimos goes out of his way to make sure we understand that, for a literal version of the same dilemma would be unbearable to witness). Via a kind of perverse abstraction that sometimes borders on the absurd, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” concerns itself with the idea of justice and of consequences. Quiet at first, but increasingly unnerving, until such point that its protagonist (hardly a hero) must make an unthinkable choice, the film presents itself as a darkly comic horror-thriller, but takes us to a place far more insidious than we could’ve bargained for. This is an art film, after all, and though Lanthimos is within his rights to challenge and provoke, his seemingly cold-hearted approach to an impossible conundrum makes for an undeniably tough sit.
However, because it stars Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman as its central couple, the film stands a real chance at finding an audience — especially considering the recent original screenplay Oscar nomination for “The Lobster,” which Lanthimos shared with regular co-writer Efthimis Filippou, who rejoins him here. That said, it’s hardly your conventional horror movie, and people aren’t exactly running out to identify with sadistic no-win hypothetical scenarios (there’s a reason hardly anyone went to see Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” when he remade it in the States).
Slimmer and less schlubby-looking than his character in “The Lobster,” Farrell remains far removed from the feral, alpha-male types on which his star persona was founded. Instead, he plays Steven, a heart surgeon in the outwardly authoritative yet inwardly spineless tradition of Dustin Hoffman’s “Straw Dogs” character. All seems well at home, where he lives with ophthalmologist wife Anna (Kidman) and their two kids, 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), two years her junior — although an intense discordant violin note suggests trouble ahead. Even the couple’s sex life is good, if a little kinky.
But something is amiss in the time Steven spends apart from his family. He is increasingly confronted by a young man named Martin (Barry Keoghan), who has started showing up unannounced. Steven tries to buy him off with presents, including an expensive watch, but the boy keeps coming back, so the doctor decides to invite him home for dinner. Everyone behaves at the peak of politeness, although they have a tendency to demand/offer extremely personal details — a strange way of establishing quick intimacy between characters (and earning an awkward laugh in the process): Kim volunteers that she has just gotten her first period, and Bob asks to see if Martin has hair under his arms.
And then one day, Bob can’t get out of bed. His legs are paralyzed, and he must be rushed to the same hospital where Steven works. Steven’s colleagues are stumped, but Martin recognizes the situation for what it is, “that critical moment we both knew would come.” Karma has caught up with the doctor, and because he didn’t do what was right when it was called for, now an innocent person must suffer.
The price is almost too much to pay: Steven must agree to sacrifice one of his family members. The fact that we learn of his dilemma before comprehending why he’s forced to make it in the first place not only engenders empathy for Steven’s predicament, but misleads us into viewing him as the victim. But it’s not that simple, and a simple shift of perspective — were Martin to become the main character, or anytime the film favors his wife and children — radically changes our allegiances. In fact, Steven is the worst kind of villain: a coward, refusing to take responsibility for his past actions, just as he refuses to make the decision that is asked of him now.
As allegories of extreme discomfort go, this one is masterfully orchestrated. And if recognized as the tragedy it is (that is, stripped of its thrills and viewed instead as a pathetic fait accompli), then a direct line can be drawn between the film — merely the latest and most directly engaging example of the so-called “Greek Weird Wave” revolutionizing world cinema at the moment — and Greece’s far-older dramatic tradition, where characters such as Agamemnon and Medea were confronted with decisions equally impossible to bear.
Unlike those plays, however, Lanthimos exploits the fact that we don’t know where the story will take us, revealing its surprises in layers, via a series of tough plot twists. Even the performances can be misleading, as the director supplies his cast with lines that seldom convey what the characters are truly feeling, but instead amount to a form of stilted, monotonous-sounding small talk, forcing us to read between the lines — none clearer than the sexual frustration conveyed by Alicia Silverstone (in her lone scene as Martin’s mother) when she insists, “I won’t let you leave until you’ve tasted my tart!”
Fortunately, Farrell and Kidman are astonishingly gifted at playing the subtext of every scene. Consider the moment in which Steven insists Anna follow him down to the basement. Has he chosen her as his sacrifice? Is this the moment? None of the dialogue acknowledges the shocking development that follows — to the extent that the East German Stasi could be listening in and wouldn’t pick up on what’s actually happening — but the two actors communicate what’s being said in total clarity with their eyes. For a moment, Steven feels as if he has the upper hand. Not so. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is yet another frontal attack on patriarchal assumptions, in which an emasculating father figure must face his own hubris. Rest assured, Lanthimos won’t let him off that easy.