The fly in the ointment is Martin (Barry Keoghan), a teen that Steven spends time with after work and introduces to his family early in the film. Martin’s polite with the parents, charming towards Kim, and acts like a big brother to Bob, but whether it’s inherent to Keoghan himself or the way he’s playing the character, something is off. First seen in the underrated Troubles drama ’71, Keoghan seems placid but he’s hiding something. Lanthimos and Fillipou slowly dole out information on Martin’s relationship with Steven, eventually introducing Martin’s widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone) and recounting the events of Martin’s father’s death, which occurred on Steven’s operating table. When Bob suddenly loses the use of his legs for no apparent medical reason, Martin reveals his plan to Steven: his family will progress through the stages of a killing curse unless Steven himself kills either Bob or Kim or Anna. It’s the only way Martin can see justice being served.
Adapted from the Euripedes play Iphigenia at Aulis, in which the Greek king Agamemnon must decide whether or not to sacrifice his daughter, thus allowing his army to set sail for Troy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer contains plenty of mysterious retribution on hubristic individuals. Martin may as well be some Olympian trickster god, demanding submission and remaining implacable in the face of resistance. His perfectly punchable face does get punched, but it’s the equivalent of fighting with an earthquake. Steven’s unwillingness to admit a mistake sullies everything his ostensibly perfect life rests upon, though the form his profession takes allows for these kinds of life-ending mistakes. Martin is something of an avenging angel, a boy whose father died and mother folded in on herself, leaving him alone and without guidance while the perceived cause of his troubles went back to his giant house with his intact family and, at worst, paid more in insurance premiums. There’s a lot of Michael Haneke’s Cache in this film, where an aggrieved party impassively watches from a distance as an upper-class life obliviously proceeds. The gods see everything, and they’re going to restore balance to the world.
In Dogtooth, Alps, and The Lobster, Lanthimos juxtaposed characters speaking rationally with the insane and irrational things they were saying, a tactic that sharpened the strangeness of their respective worlds. Despite the curse Martin places on the Murphy’s, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the closest to the real world of Lanthimos’ four most recent films, so the flat delivery is more affectation than artistic choice. It’s also missing the sense of discovery that so invigorated modern classics like Dogtooth and The Lobster. What the film has in common with Lanthimos’ work is the bleak slapstick. There is something riotously funny about Suljic’s Bob flopping onto the floor as a new parapalegic, and it gets amplified by an increasingly-frustrated Steven picking him up and dropping him in the hope that Bob’s faking. Keoghan isn’t exactly giving a comedic performance but he is so mannered and controlled that if his every tic isn’t generating a chuckle, it’s getting at least an open-faced grin. This should be a star-making performance for him.
This odd and eerily beautiful film (thanks to Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography) also lacks the grand political metaphor of Lanthimos’ best work. The operation intro hints at a nihilistic, ‘this is all there is’ downer, and the rest of the film doesn’t step fully away from such a stance. Martin has a monologue while scarfing down breakfast spaghetti in which he recounts how, after his dad died, people told him that Martin ate spaghtetti just like his dad used to. That helped Martin feel close to his father, but he later learned that everyone eats spaghetti the same way. No one’s living on through someone else. There’s only absence. The finality of death is obliquely referenced in the film’s obsession with adolescence, a time of change that Martin’s father didn’t see his son go through and, if Martin has his way, Steven won’t see it for his kids either. A movie about nothing is rarely going to be more interesting than a movie about anything. Maybe Lanthimos just hates doctors, as his and Filippou’s script takes repeated shots at their clean and perfect hands.
It’s no great sin that The Killing of a Sacred Deer can’t match two of the greatest films of the twenty-first century. Any film that makes a viewer throw their hands up in bafflement, as the theater patron a row ahead of me did, is doing something right. Good-to-great Lanthimos is still better than much else that gets released in any given year. B+