Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a heart surgeon, one of the best in an extremely specialist field. Or so he likes to think. He has a family with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), a girl, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and a younger boy, Bob (Sunny Suljic), and they are perfectly happy, but something he has done is set to sabotage that contentment. He has made friends with Martin (Barry Keoghan), the teenage son of one of his patients who was not so lucky; Steven may blame the anaesthetist, but the fact remains Martin's father died when he was on his operating table, though the boy appears to show the surgeon no ill will and courts his friendship to the point of gifts. But Martin has an unwanted gift.
If you had seen a film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos before, you would know the drill by now, airless tales of cruelty among people who seem to be acting out their relationships as if not quite awake, possibly going through the motions of love and friendship until they get stuck in a situation that requires them to act on suppressed and ignored emotions and circumstances they find they have little control over. If that sounds like a lot to take in for one movie, imagine what it was like to settle down with another Lanthimos effort and be aware this was what you were in for once again - if you were a fan, you were aware of the intellectual discomfort you were in for, if now, well...
If not, why were you watching another movie from this director, would be the pertinent question? He wasn't going to change his tune now, and with The Killing of a Sacred Deer he took the often alien to modern views world of Greek mythology and transplanted it to twenty-first century America, in all its strangeness contrasted with the suburban mundanity of the United States we had seen in cinema so many times before. This mixture could be as potent as one of those tales of old in the right hands, and Lanthimos was not the only filmmaker to draw inspiration from them, though in his instance he seemed more entitled to approach the myths since he hailed from Greece himself.
You would think he had a better working knowledge of, in this case, the legend of Agamemnon and his tragedy than many of his contemporaries from other lands, though as ever with this talent, the effect was at one remove from the emotional pain his characters were going through, that sense of observing leaving one not more intimate with the subject of the observation, but far more clinical, even to the point of not wholly understanding what you were seeing. The trouble with that turned out to be the audience, lured in by the big stars headlining the drama and expecting something far more mainstream than it turned out to be, not an art film that had somehow snared those celebrities and was promoted in popular magazine programmes. Top marks to the marketing team for gathering such a variety of cinemagoers.
But maybe not when they would be less likely to take a chance on something challenging in the future after being stung by this example. It was a tricky proposition, but when you were watching a piece that was essentially a highbrow horror flick designed to disturb and discombobulate, the fact remained that most audiences did not welcome those sensations when sitting down for an evening's entertainment. What this was, with its central mystery left utterly blank in the space marked "Explanation", moved more towards the cabinet labelled "mindfuck", taking the viewer by the hand into what seemed to be a cross between Pier Paolo Pasolini and Michael Haneke, then sticking that hand in a blender for its own inscrutable amusement. With its themes of child endangerment and a revenge attained at the expense of the least deserving, you can understand why cult success was all Lanthimos was able to achieve, but if you welcomed something bracing, he was there for you, reliable in his curious manner.
[Curzon's DVD includes a Q&A with director and stars, and a making of as extras.]