The Greek gods didn't mess around. That's why "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" has just about the worst title of the movie year.
It refers to Agamemnon's slaying of a deer in a grove protected by the Goddess Artemis. Whereupon, Agamemnon is told by her to kill his daughter Iphigenia if he ever expects his entire army to be able to sail to Troy to make war, as planned.
In Greek mythology, Artemis' reparations aren't exactly fair: Slay the wrong deer and the gods ask you pay with your very daughter.
Note that Agamemnon's was a hunting indiscretion. Which is only one reason why Yorgos Lanthimos' film starring Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman is a bit of a crock.
In a better film, I might have found it possible to praise the director's ambition for turning to his Greek forebears. In this one, it looks a lot more like pointless pretension.
Farrell plays a heart surgeon, a man who saves lives for a living, not takes them for sport or for vengeance. He is wealthy and respected in the community, as is his wife, played by Kidman. That, to Lanthimos, seems more than reason enough for them to be tormented.
Which they are for the entire film, to the point where it is really a psychological horror film.
Lanthimos is one of the strangest film-makers we have. His movies are weird, wildly imaginative, brilliantly filmed and, ultimately, just about as unsatisfying and unpleasant as the films of any director I know. "The Lobster," also starring Farrell, had a brilliant dystopian idea. It postulated a society where love is compulsory and being single is dangerous. By the time that fascinating notion is explored fully by the Greek director, it turned into a maddening detailed voyage to nowhere.
Let's ignore the subject of art for a second, "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" seems to be a huge marketing mistake. This, at best, is a very unusual upscale horror movie about a family tormented by the teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan) whose horrifying menace is so odd that, when he first blurts it out at top speed, it almost seems comic. It is, in fact, anything but funny. To have any commercial chance at all, it should have opened, as it did around the country, around Halloween time. To have it open now seems close to fatal.
The horror is this. Martin, for the first 45 minutes of the film, has some unexplained fixation on the doctor and hold over him. The doctor is always available to Martin, no matter how busy he is. The doctor plies him with gifts, including an expensive watch.
We find out, eventually, what that hold is: The heart surgeon unsuccessfully performed surgery on the teen's father and lost his patient.
Martin's remedy is as much Old Testament as mythological Greek -- the doctor must kill one member of his family or, one by one, lose them all.
Who could possibly credit such a lunatic threat? Then one child comes down with a serious, inexplicable illness leading to paralysis and confinement. Then his other child is afflicted the same way.
Kidman is a willing participant in her husband's odd sexual tastes. When it's time for bedtime sex, she undresses about as dutifully as she might for a doctor and lays down naked on their bed as if she expects surgery to follow. Which leads to her husband's auto-eroticism.
Farrell starred in Lanthimos' "The Lobster" too. Kidman, to her eternal credit, has always seemed to make herself available to wildly ambitious independent film-making, even in Europe (see Lars Van Trier's "Dogville.") Such nudity as hers in "Deer" is no small decision for an Oscar-winning star of her magnitude, which indicates a complete faith in Lanthimos' artistic ambition and importance.
It's a faith I don't begin to share with the actress.
"The Killing of a Sacred Deer" is a beautifully photographed, mesmerizing film of supernatural revenge that, at its high point, creeps you out completely before becoming completely and actively unpleasant to watch. People hate this movie. You'll have no difficulty understanding why.
After seeing "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" you might come to the conclusion that the true victim of the film's pitiless pretension isn't one of the characters but the audience itself.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
2 1/2 stars (out of four)
Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Alicia Silverstone and Barry Keoghan in Yorgos Lanthimos' strange horror drama about the family of a heart surgeon which is supernaturallly menaced by a former patient's son. 121 minutes. Rated R for disturbing violence, graphic nudity and language.