You know where you aren’t with director Yorgos Lanthimos. The Greek allegorist creates parallel worlds which superficially resemble our own. In Dogtooth an overweening patriarch incarcerates his three adult children in a state of infantilised innocence. The Lobster punishes those unable to find a mate by transfiguring them into animals. His acerbic commentaries on flawed modernity feel like lurid horror stories the ancients forgot to write down.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer invokes pagan sacrifice in its title. Iphigenia is even mentioned in dispatches — the subject of a schoolgirl essay that doubles as a mythological flare. The film opens on a close-up of open-heart surgery in which a sickly pink organ throbs garishly. After the operation two bloodstained surgical gauntlets are tossed into a bin. This is a film in which the gloves will come off.
The surgeon is Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, bearded like a scraggy Pythagoras), who is married to an ophthalmologist Anna (Nicole Kidman) — hearts and eyes, theirs are a pair of grimly symbolic specialisms. They have a nice nuclear family spaciously domiciled in suburban Cincinnati, the city named after a Roman general. Not everything is sweetly functional in their marriage: Steven likes to beat off to the sight of Anna stripped and draped across the coverlet like a lanky alabaster corpse.
But deeper shadows are lengthening outside the home. Steven has secret, regular contact with Martin (Barry Keoghan), a deadpan teen who has some kind of vice-like hold over him. Is he the product of a previous relationship? An illegal squeeze? No, he’s the son of a patient who earlier died under Steven’s knife. It’s an unsettling liaison fuelled by unspoken blackmail. Steven guiltily feeds Martin, and gives him time, literally in the form of an expensive watch. Steven attempts to normalise things by inviting Martin to meet his wife and children. The latter are creepily intrigued by bodily transformations. ‘I just got my first period,’ says Kim, 14 (Raffey Cassidy). ‘Can you show me the hair under your arms?’ asks Bob, 12 (Sunny Suljic), who wears his locks girlishly long.
The get-together backfires when Martin invites Steven back to dine with, and he hopes, seduce, his lonely mother (Alicia Silverstone). When this plan doesn’t work — Steven calls it ‘ludicrous’ — Martin escalates to batshit mode, pronouncing a vengeful curse upon the Murphys and demanding Steven slaughters one of his sacred dears: an eye for an eye. One by one the kids are paralysed from the waist down, and refuse all food. The doctors are baffled. Steven proposes a witch’s cure, a brew including the pubic hair of a virgin, only to remember that these are nowadays depilated at source.
In such moments is Lanthimos’s lacerating rage obliquely glimpsed. Other contemporary perversions in his gunsights include over-protective child-rearing, the clinical loftiness of modern medicine, the vengeful certainties of the young. Take your pick. If it all sounds gruelling, that’s because it mainly is, and yet Lanthimos is also a warped humourist. The kids slide about the house like legless ancestors slithering from the swamp. Martin’s mother fetishises Steven’s lovely hands by desperately fellating his thumb. Anna extracts information from a flabby anaesthesiologist by administering a brisk handjob in his SUV.
The sense of queasy menace extends to the film’s look. Beautiful interiors, around which the camera prowls like a stalker, have a dead cleanliness. To express Anna’s vapidity, Kidman is lit and dressed to merge with the amber backdrops, while Steven (Farrell keeps his Irish accent) enunciates in an emotionless, thermostat-controlled monotone. Most of the really jarring ugliness occurs on the haywire soundtrack, all keening Bartokian tinnitus and detonating piano clangs.
What makes this operatic fable sing is the extraordinarily chilling performance of Barry Keoghan as Martin. His pinched, pouchy face, with its icicle eyes and lubricious lips, looks like a viral scourge sent to trash the American dream. Though hideously watchable, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not for the faint of heart. For his next film Lanthimos descends on the court of Queen Anne. Royalists, better start on the statins.