'The Killing of a Sacred Deer' is out of ammo

Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell have become cinema’s strangest on-screen couple. When last we saw them, in The Beguiled, they were having a 19th century fling that turned into a slow motion horror show featuring (spoilers!) poison mushrooms and amputations.

In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, they’re back together, and at the outset reasonably happy in their own kinky way. Farrell is a prosperous heart surgeon named Stephen, Kidman his wife Anna. There is an early scene of foreplay: She is nude and motionless on their bed, asking if he’d like the usual, by which she means adopting the posture of a patient under “general anesthesia.”

The entire drama is drugged. Expressionless characters mope about, saying inappropriate things with an exaggerated deadpan calm (“Our daughter has just started menstruating”) and remaining straight-faced even as events turn gruesome. For Kidman, it’s like being in Stepford all over again.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) has modeled his drama on Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, and it’s even mentioned here by name. It’s the story of the Greek king Agamemnon preparing to sacrifice his own daughter to right a past wrong, so the gods may grant him favorable winds for his war on Troy.

Physician Stephen, whose wealth suggests kingly privilege, is also haunted by a past mistake, and is slow to realize that the young man named Martin (Barry Keoghan, the doomed civilian teen in Dunkirk) following him around doesn’t want advice or counseling. He wants revenge.

Martin is the most stone-faced of the bunch, but what we initially see as adolescent shyness and lack of self-confidence turns out to be quite the opposite. He’s monstrously in control — an art film version of the Saw manipulator. His plan for Stephen’s family is remorseless and savage.

Savage, but not tragic. Lanthimos is not Euripides, and not capable of — or interested in — staging a tragedy. And his aim to make something horrifying or at least excruciating out of this scenario gets lost in the iciness of the presentation.

The characters don’t register as real. Stephen’s dilemma — he must choose to sacrifice someone he loves — carries no real emotional weight. Farrell finally breaks a sweat in the climactic scenes, but by then the movie has begun to plod, as we wait for Lanthimos to confirm his reputation as a conjurer of outrageous images, or outrageous laughs.

I laughed exactly once, when, in a gesture of appeasement in keeping with the Greek legend, Stephen’s family offers Martin his favorite a side dish.

Having bent to his cruel, god-like will, they have a final question: Do you want fries with that?

MOVIES

Killing of a Sacred Deer

  • Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. With Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Alicia Silverstone and Bill Camp. Distributed by A24.
  • Running time: 1 hour, 59 mins.
  • Parents guide: R (violence, sexual situations)
  • Playing at: Ritz Five

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