“The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a feel-bad movie, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Our popular entertainment culture, predicated as it is on keeping audiences endlessly buying, is so desperate to please that any hint of the terrible news — that human beings are, generally speaking, small, cruel, mortal, and doomed — can be a refreshing kick in the complacency.
A good feel-bad movie — say, the films of Michael Haneke, or the Coens’ “A Serious Man,” or any of Stanley Kubrick’s darker excursions — invites an audience in before springing the bear trap. It makes us complicit. Then there are those in which the position of filmmaker to filmgoers is that of lecturer to lecture hall, or priest to chastened flock. The balance is off. We feel talked down to and eventually frozen out.
Such is the case with the latest from Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos, who was last seen turning lonely-hearts into animals in last year’s “The Lobster.” Colin Farrell is again the star, this time as Steven Murphy, a successful big city heart surgeon with a brisk ophthalmologist wife, Ann (Nicole Kidman), a young son, Bob (Sunny Suljic), and a restless adolescent daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy).
Lanthimos’s movies flirt with surrealism before plunging in, a tactic made eerier by the narcotized monotones in which he coaches his actors to speak. The surfaces are calm but there are beasts below. Why is Steven spending so much time with a vaguely threatening teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan)? What is the mysterious sickness that paralyzes the limbs of first Bob and then Kim? Has the doctor been cursed for actions (or inactions) in the past? The title sounds a note of sacrifice, but of who and to whom?
Actually, the title refers to the Greek legend of King Agamemnon, cursed by the goddess Artemis for killing her sacred deer and forced to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, if he is to be allowed to sail his fleet to the Trojan War. You could argue that Lanthimos is invested in updating his country’s ancient mythology and metaphors to the dreads of the 21st century, a rich idea that founders on the director’s crushingly controlled style. “Killing” undergirds the actors’ passive-aggressive performances with liturgical music (Bach, Schubert, Ligeti) and Johnnie Burn’s industrial film score — excuse me, “sound design” — and the contrast sometimes leads to unintentional laughter.
The cast is earnest and they almost convince us they’re doing important rather than self-important work. Farrell is fine, and Kidman, who’s in a remarkable mid-career renaissance, rises to the occasion; Ann slowly grows in righteous fury until she actually does seem to acquire the stature of legend. Cassidy, once the robot girl of “Tomorrowland,” is growing into a skilled and very steady actress, and Keoghan — the unlucky tag-along in “Dunkirk” — effortlessly straddles innocence and malice. If there’s a great performance here, it’s his.
The sins of the patriarchs and the prices to be paid are themes older than the Bible and as relevant as the bourgeoisie; Haneke’s “Cache” (2005) and Ruben Ostlund’s “Force Majeure” (2014) are just two recent films to hoist smug family men on their own petards. To this subject Lanthimos brings a suitcase of borrowed Kubrick-isms and the moralism of an Old Testament prophet, and the two approaches congeal rather than combust. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” has been designed as a punishment. It succeeds all too well.
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou. Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy. At Boston Common. 116 minutes. R (disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and language).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.