A skilled surgeon and his anesthesiologist walk down a hospital hallway after performing open-heart surgery. Rather than talk about the operation they’ve just performed, they exchange banalities about their high-priced wristwatches. Later the surgeon, meets with a young man and gives him a gift, an expensive watch. The conversations in these two scenes are conducted without benefit of inflection or emphasis. For all the color the actors bring to their dialogue, they might as well be reciting grocery lists.
In these scenarios, relationships and motivations become blank slates, and we -- the audience -- labor to comprehend the meaning of everything we see.
Are these doctors so insensitive that they can talk about nothing more than the quality of their watches? And what is the relationship of the physician to the young man we've just seen? Could the young man be a son from some now-dissolved marriage? Is this meeting about something stranger than an awkward reunion?
All of this occurs in the opening moments of director Yorgos Lanthimos's The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a revenge saga played out in an atmosphere of provocative obfuscation. Lanthimos, who directed the much-admired but often cryptic The Lobster (2016), has proven himself a master at holding an audience in what might be called "active suspension," a state of heightened attentiveness in which much is suggested but little is clarified.
I'm a partisan of this approach to filmmaking, the kind in which images, music, and performance continually force us to look for meaning. But such filmmaking also can prove risky. Often, it can't be maintained for a two-hour running time. Eventually, the filmmaker must get down to business and create some sort of plot.
It's at this pivotal point that Lanthimos's effort begins to crumble, and we face the slow dawning of an unfortunate realization; the keenness of observation Lanthimos has demanded of us may not yield the hoped-for payoff.
Any actor who works with Lanthimos must adapt to the director's style, something in the way that actors who appear in a David Mamet production must submit to the loaded cadences in which Mamet's characters speak.
In that regard, the actors in The Killing of a Sacred Deer do admirable work. Colin Farrell plays Steven Murphy, heart surgeon and wristwatch enthusiast. Nicole Kidman portrays his wife, Anna, an eye doctor. The Murphy's have two children: Kim (Raffey Cassidy), a teenager, and Bob (Sunny Suljic), a long-haired boy with a near-angelic look.
The mysterious young man mentioned earlier (Barry Keoghan) mixes politeness and threat, a cross between Eddie Haskell, the obnoxiously polite kid on Leave it to Beaver, and serial killer Ted Bundy.
Alicia Silverstone shows up briefly as Martin's mother, a woman who hopes Steven will assuage her loneliness by becoming her lover. Martin eggs her on in this delusion.
Now, if you don't want to know anything more, I suggest you stop here. At the risk of introducing spoilers, I must tell you that Martin poses an increasingly grave danger to the Murphy family. It seems that Martin's father died after Steven operated on the ailing man. Martin blames Steven and aims to settle the score. He informs Steven that if the good doctor doesn't kill either his wife or one of his children, each will become ill and die. How Martin intends to fulfill this malignant promise remains a mystery.
Dipping into Greek mythology and who knows what else, Lanthimos deftly keeps us inside his bubble of suspense, sometimes nudging us toward the comic absurdity of Steven's situation. The security of an affluent family suddenly is threatened, which means -- of course -- that it had no real security in the first place.
Farrell's bushy beard seems to throw his face into a perpetual scowl. Kidman manages to be a credible denizen of Lanthimos's strangely concocted world. Before Steven and Anna make love, Anna sprawls across the bed in her underwear, lies perfectly still and invites Steven to proceed by uttering the least romantic words ever heard in a sex scene; i.e., "general anesthesia." Sex becomes an operation, and Anna seems to be saying, "Have at it. I won't feel a thing."
The movie's best performance belongs to Keoghan who has the capacity simultaneously to alarm and reassure; Martin's twisted sincerity makes it seem as if perfect logic supports the young man's insane plan.
If you want to enlarge your interpretation of the movie, you can view the story as a stage in which karmic forces clash: Steven must be punished for being a successful doctor who may once have been negligent. Or maybe he's being punished for living an affluent life in the movie's unnamed city or for cutting himself off from his emotions or ... You can fill in your own blanks.
Whatever Lanthimos wants to say falls prey to the fact that the movie becomes less intriguing as it goes on, so much so that the denouement of Lanthimos's drama feels abstract and remote rather than shockingly tragic.
Augmented by the cool tones of cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis's lighting, Killing of a Sacred Deer evokes depths it's unable to plumb. In the end, the movie may amount to little more than a complex expression of a familiar adage: Payback's a bitch.
Fair enough, but this could be a case in which a movie's cruelty doesn't hurt enough because its creators can't entirely solve the problem of making the conceptional battle between an arrogant doctor and the evil he arouses into something that comes screaming to life. Lanthimos may have been defeated by his own considerable artistic impulses: Putting a movie under “general anesthesia” risks not being able to rouse it again.