The films of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos are unstable compounds of comedy and horror. Dogtooth, Alps, The Lobster—each spins out from its own absurd premise, guided less by logic than by an apparently boundless impulse to provoke. Like Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke, Lanthimos likes to show characters inflicting painful wounds on themselves, but his is a decidedly sillier sadism: noses banged into walls, hands inserted into toasters, torture with tongue in cheek. His movies are full of ridiculous (and hilarious) scenes of people dancing alone. Whereas von Trier’s and Haneke’s films achieve, for all their exaggerations and extremes, an essayistic clarity, Lanthimos’s can be quite muddled.
On the surface, his new film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is about revenge. Colin Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy, a cardiologist with a dark secret: One of his patients died on the operating table, and the morning he performed the surgery, he’d been drinking. Steven is married to Anna (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist. Their children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), already have glimmers of med school in their eyes. Signs of twisted humor appear early in the film, when Steven and Anna start a medical-themed role-play before sex. She disrobes and asks, “General anesthetic?” then pretends to be passed out as he climbs on top of her. Later, at a fancy party, a colleague asks after the kids, and Steven says, “Our daughter started menstruating last week.”
The absurdist touches are light at first, certainly compared to Lanthimos’s previous works. Killing begins as a psychological thriller, makes gestures toward tragedy of a self-consciously Greek sort, and resolves into a Gothic nightmare. There’s another child in Steven’s life: Martin (Barry Keoghan), a sullen 16-year-old he meets for lunch and presents with the gift of a watch during a walk by the river (the movie is set in a suburb of an unnamed and hard-to-identify American city). Something’s creepy about their interactions, and until Steven invites Martin over to meet his family, you suspect that Steven might be grooming Martin or that the boy might be his secret son.
He is in fact the child of Steven’s patient, the one who died on the operating table. At the Murphys’, Martin livens up. Left alone with the children, he shows off his budding armpit hair, tells tales of his adolescent licentiousness, and smokes cigarettes. (Almost everyone smokes in this picture, and almost everyone is morally tainted.) He invites Steven over to his house for dinner with his mother (Alicia Silverstone) and to watch his favorite movie, Groundhog Day. The mother makes a pass at Steven, which he politely declines. These opening scenes are taut and deviously conceived by Lanthimos and his longtime screenwriting partner, Efthymis Filippou.
For any discussion of this movie to make sense, a spoiler is necessary. One morning Bob wakes up unable to move his legs. The doctors’ tests reveal nothing. The paralysis seems to be psychosomatic. Martin shows up at the hospital and tells an agitated and reluctant Steven to meet him in the cafeteria. There he tells him that a reckoning has arrived: His children and his wife will all undergo three terrible stages of suffering—paralysis of the limbs, inability to eat, bleeding from the eyes—and eventually die, unless Steven kills one of them himself.
After Keoghan’s chilling delivery of these lines, what had seemed Lanthimos’s first foray into a dark strain of realism turns into a campy grotesque. Kim loses the use of her legs, dropping during a chorus rehearsal, but Martin is able to make her walk again—just so that she can see him wave to her through the window of her hospital room. Martin seems to possess demonic powers. But why is he inflicting ghastly punishments and offering a dreadful ultimatum instead of, say, filing a malpractice lawsuit? We don’t learn anything rotten about Steven’s character, beyond his drinking habit, which he has already kicked. There are no further complications to his act of negligence. The supernatural element short-circuits Lanthimos’s pretensions of tragedy, and after its electrifying first hour, Killing loses it spark and narrows to a series of gruesome scenes. It’s less a film about crime and punishment than an occasion for Lanthimos to cycle through the idiosyncratic set of perversities that first grabbed our attention but has been growing staler with each picture.
How did he get here? Lanthimos’s 2009 breakout, Dogtooth, signaled the arrival of an auteur whose notions of sex and power relations blended Aristophanes, Bret Easton Ellis, and Dada. Broadly speaking, you could say the film is about family life as a prison, the evils of homeschooling, or the tyranny of fathers. It’s the story of three teenagers who’ve been trapped at home all their lives and taught the wrong meanings of words. This scenario leads them to commit incest, to kill a cat, and to bark like dogs on all fours. One daughter catches her first glimpse of the outside world in a VHS tape of Flashdance. She also takes to rehearsing the dance routine to “Maniac.” Hearing that only when a tooth falls out will she be old enough to leave home, she knocks out her own tooth with a mini-dumbbell. These scenes are alternately hilarious and cringe-inducing, too far-out to pass for social commentary.
In Alps (2011), if you try hard enough you can fish out something like a comment on Greece’s economic crises. Four friends start a business, selling a concentrated form of emotional labor: They will comfort the bereaved by impersonating their dead loved ones. It’s the sort of sideline people improvise in straitened times to soak vulnerable marks. The incentives are obscene, and one of the four will soon lose herself in her false identities and start sleeping with her clients. A deadpan conceit in the film is that the character traits of the deceased can easily be gleaned from questions like, “Who was her favorite Hollywood star?” Visually, Alps moves through dimly lit rooms, a dingy hospital, and an empty high school gym, lending its absurdity a grim dose of the actual. Of all Lanthimos’s films, it has the most convincingly desperate characters.
Whether because funding was growing scarce in Greece or because it’s inevitable that an internationally acclaimed filmmaker will seek a wider audience and Hollywood stars, Lanthimos shifted into English with The Lobster, enlisting Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, and Léa Seydoux. The result was the divisive art-house hit of 2015. As in his earlier films, most characters aren’t named (so I’ll refer to them by the actors’ names). They’re identified by arbitrary traits—Farrell and Weisz are near-sighted, Whishaw has a limp, Reilly lisps, and so on. Whereas Lanthimos had previously shown a family or small group governed by strange rules, he now imagined a whole society remade by a severe experiment. In a city where being single is outlawed, widows, widowers, and abandoned spouses are brought to a sort of prison hotel, where they have 45 days to find a new mate. If they fail, they will be transformed into the animal of their choosing. Farrell’s preselection is a lobster. He’s accompanied by a dog, his brother.
What is on trial in this dystopia? Monogamy? Love? State authority? Politics itself? Tinder? The first half of The Lobster makes a drily amusing if slightly rote procession through its governing conceits. (In Killing it’s the back end that’s similarly sandbagged.) The hotel staff deliver lectures about the benefits of being in a couple, and punishments are administered for petty violations. Given that the ultimate penalty is metamorphosis, Kafka is the governing spirit of the prison hotel. But once Farrell makes an escape to the woods and joins an insurrectionary force of bachelors and bachelorettes, Orwell takes over. Love is forbidden in the forest. Those caught kissing will have their lips slashed with a razor. The rebels can only dance alone, which is why, their leader, Seydoux, explains, they listen to electronic music. The shot of rebels wearing earphones and holding CD players, gyrating silently in the woods is the funniest in the whole film.
The prohibition of love turns out to be more interesting than its enforcement. The second half of The Lobster, like 1984, has the structure of a romantic comedy, with Weisz and Farrell falling in love, being punished, and then coming together again, though the final shot retains some ambiguity. If it has a moral about love, then it’s a simple one: True love requires self-sacrifice. If it’s a political allegory, the message is that both the state and its opposition tend to go to extremes. But these are commonplaces, and without a plausible link back to the real world—some insidious force in the culture we can recognize amplified in the dystopia—the film’s overall effect is silliness.
Unlike dystopia, tragedy does not need a real-world referent; it can run on its own steam. Yet Killing never quite rises to the level of tragedy: Steven, played with quivering self-pity by Farrell, may be a successful physician undone by his own vices, but he’s never a hero; his tormentor is more imp than Iago; the drama is inhuman and, uncharacteristically for Lanthimos, it isn’t funny either. Instead of a cruel, comic showdown between Martin and the Murphys, Killing winds into a dour series of predictable degradations.
The star of the Total Recall remake might have put his action-hero talents to good use in Killing—Steven does kidnap Martin, tie him up in his basement, and beat him up—but Martin gets the better of him. He bites into his forearm and then bites into his own to show he wants to keep the score even—a move that for the viewer conditioned to Lanthimos’s work looks more like a self-referential cliché than a fresh provocation. There’s also demeaning sex (Anna extracts a secret from one of Steven’s colleagues by giving him a hand job—a scene Kidman plays with a bored look on her face) and physical humiliations (the children crawling around the house on their elbows) that echo Dogtooth and The Lobster. Lanthimos has lurched into self-parody and been trampled by his own hobbyhorses. It’s almost tragic.