by Andrew Wyatt on Nov 10, 2017

The characters in Yorgos Lathimos' films don't talk like normal people. In the case of the Bizarro clan in the director's pitch-black absurdist masterpiece Doogtooth (2009), the family's speech patterns reveal their insular enforced worldview – a Wonderland paradigm where "sea" means "chair'' and house cats are ravenous monsters. In Lathimos’ The Lobster (2015), desperate singles in some alternate near-future go through the ridiculous rituals of romance, exhibiting the cold pragmatism and stilted unfamiliarity of visitors from another planet.

In Lathimos' latest feature, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the director's unnervingly off-key dialog is not as thematically pertinent as it is in his other works. There is not much subtext to the film's verbal inelegance, beyond the routine observation that social interactions are detached and vacuous in the modern world. (In this, Killing bears some resemblance to David Cronenberg's icier features, such as Crash and Cosmopolis.) However, the film's distinctive Lathimos speech patterns – characterized by emotional blankness and perfunctory line deliveries – engender a forceful mood of skin-crawling unease. That atmosphere is an essential component of Killing, which represents the Greek film maker's first plunge into full-fledged horror, albeit a fittingly arid and chilly stripe of arthouse horror.

Straightaway, the viewer is put on edge, as the camera follows surgeon Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp) during their post-op trek down a long hospital hallway. The keening, modernist score – plainly intended to evoke Stanley Kubrick's films – is more than sufficient to raise the viewer's hackles. However, something about the otherwise banal conversation between the two men is decidedly off. Steven inquires about Matthew's watch, under the pretense that he is looking to replace his own timepiece, but the surgeon's words sound rehearsed, like the clipped, practiced statements of a man giving a deposition. Steven is being less than truthful with his colleague: The watch he eventually purchases is for Martin (Barry Keoghan), an adolescent boy with an initially ambiguous relationship to the surgeon.

This mild deception is not particularly salient to the plot, beyond necessitating an awkward lie when Martin later drops in on Steven at the hospital. The dishonesty is revealing, however, as it establishes that there is something vaguely embarrassing about Steven's friendship with the boy. It's an impression that is further reinforced by the illicit vibe of their meetings, which occur over lunch at greasy spoons and during idle walks along the waterfront. The surgeon's manner with Martin is paternal, yet somehow self-consciously anxious, as if he were doing something questionable simply by being seen in public with the boy.

Moreover, Steven's little white lies paint the surgeon as a man who is comfortable with self-serving deceit. Indeed, all of Steven's interactions with his family – wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), adolescent daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and preteen son Bob (Sunny Suljic) – have a whiff of shallow performance. It's as though their prosaic dinner-table conversation about haircuts, bike safety, and choir practice were a flimsy distraction from the telltale heart thumping under the floorboards. If further evidence of Steven's sinister eccentricity were needed, he and Anna engage in creepy sexual roleplay where she pretends to be an anesthetized patient – whom he then proceeds to rape.

Eventually, it is revealed that Martin is the son of one of Steven's former patients, a man who perished on the operating table following a car accident. During their conversations, Steven plays the part of the attentive adult, inquiring about Martin's grades and the well-being of his widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone). Martin is grateful, but also exceedingly peculiar; his flat affect and strange non sequiturs suggesting someone who is repeating words he is overhearing on some high-frequency wavelength. At one point, Steven makes the polite but ill-fated decision to invite Martin to the family's lavish home for dinner, a meeting that ignites Kim's infatuation with the boy. The visit also triggers a disturbing escalation in Martin's efforts to ingratiate himself to the family.

After Steven angrily rebuffs Martin's clumsy attempt to finagle his mother and the surgeon into an adulterous relationship, Bob falls victim to a mysterious ailment, losing all mobility in his legs. The orthopedists, neurologists, and other specialists at Steven's hospital are baffled, unable to pinpoint the reason for the boy's paralysis, beyond the ominous catch-all, "psychosomatic illness". Martin, however, provides the explanation, letting it spill out of him like a hastily delivered book report. Steven's family, the boy declares, will perish one by one: first losing their ability to walk; then unable to consume food; then bleeding from their eyes; then dying in agony. The only way to stop this horrifying sequence of events is for Steven to murder either his wife, daughter, or son, thereby sparing the other two. In Martin's conception, this blood sacrifice may not right the wrong of his father's death – which the boy blames on the surgeon – but "it's the only thing I can think of that's close to justice."

If The Killing of a Sacred Deer had been conceived as a thriller rather than a horror feature, the plot would have likely revolved around Steven's frantic efforts to uncover how exactly the unlikely Martin had managed to enact his Machiavellian scheme. (Obscure poison? Bio-engineered virus? Psychokinetic powers?) Crucially, Lathimos presents this monstrous scenario as an inherently insoluble puzzle. It doesn't matter how Martin is murdering the Murphy family; Steven will never be able to stop the boy's revenge by anything so simple as riddling out his methods. The Murphys' physical deterioration is simply a fact. It is unfathomable in the context of a rational, scientific universe, but there is a terrifying, implacable logic to it, like a Romani curse or an Old Testament plague.

The horror of Killing is thus the horror of watching a clockwork trap slowly ratchet closed with oiled, clicking remorselessness. Escape demands a choice so unthinkable that Steven does everything in his power to avoid having to make it. He berates his fellow doctors for their ineptitude, insisting that there must be some physiological reason that his son – and later, his daughter – is unable to walk. He becomes physically abusive with Bob, violently and repeatedly dropping the boy's limp body on the floor, convinced that the child must be malingering. Steven eventually goes so far as to enact a scheme of bloody counter-retribution on Martin, but the boy remains maddeningly calm and reasonable through it all, his heavy-lidded eyes swollen with reptilian unfeeling. There is only one way for Steven to preserve (most of) his family, and the surgeon's mounting desperation suggests he knows as much, deep in his bones.

The form that Martin's revenge assumes is explicitly designed to drive a wedge between the Murphys. The children, for their part, seem to apprehend that their illness is a punishment for their father's purported sins, and they strangely accept their doom with a placid fatalism. (In Kim's case, there is also a slathering of exceedingly twisted romantic adoration towards Martin.) Anna, however, is indignant, first with Martin for visiting his vengeance on the innocent, and then with Steven for bringing that vengeance down on them through his senseless mistakes. "You do realize, Steven, we're in this situation because of you?" she asks sharply.

Steven knows this only too well, of course. The marvel of Farrell's performance lies in how he suggests a murmur of Steven's smothering guilt from the character's first appearance, and then amplifies it gradually with every succeeding scene. With biting clarity, he conveys man who is utterly unable to admit to fault, less out of ego than a kind of preening, lawyerly self-preservation. In this respect, Farrell's performance recalls that of Daniel Auteuil in Caché (2005), who portrays another complacent, successful man who cannot bring himself to acknowledge a terrible misdeed he once committed.

Steven would rather lash out at any other available target – Martin, his children, other doctors – than concede that he might have invited his family's doom in some way. At one point, he obliquely throws Matthew under the bus. "A surgeon never kills a patient. An anesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can," Steven declares with defensive matter-of-factness. In a moment that the film presents with pitch-black drollness, Matthew later reverses the equation, asserting that it is the surgeon who is ultimately responsible for a patient's death. Men – it's always someone else's fault.

The small cast delivers an array of first-rate performances, each one unsettling in a distinct way, although Kidman's quietly furious portrayal of Anna strays the closest to authentic humanity. (Not through any fault of the rest of the actors, of course; the uncanny, narcotic tingle of Lathimos' mannered approach to dialog has no room for scruffy realism.) The film's clear standout is Keoghan, however, who creates a chilling sociopathic presence without straying into the cartoonish villainy that an older, more seasoned actor could get away with. Martin is the anti-Hannibal Lecter: awkward, inarticulate, incurious, unkempt, his mouth perpetually hanging open with bovine slackness. He's cunning, but too stupid to realize that he might not be the smartest person in the room. (In one of the film's funniest moments, he bites Steven's arm and then his own to illustrate his eye-for-an-eye ethos. "It's a metaphor," he explains, earnestly and unnecessarily, "Do you understand?") Martin intimidates in part because his shrewd resolve looks so uncanny on a kid who otherwise seems like he should be playing Xbox, smoking weed, and failing trigonometry.

Killing exhibits all the visual and aural impeccability that has emerged as a consistent attribute of Lathimos' films. Together, he and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis – who has shot four of the director's six features – strike a balance in the film's look between clinical, Kubrickian medium-to-wide shots and suffocating close-ups. The former employ odd angles and discombobulating compositions to heighten the film's air of sheer wrongness. Meanwhile, the latter linger uncomfortably on searching human faces and on the grotesque textures of food and bodily fluids: a crumby clump of cinnamon donut; meat sauce clinging to spaghetti; and distressing quantities of blackish, congealing blood. The film's soundtrack – from music editor Johnnie Burn and music supervisors Sarah Giles and Nick Payne – principally relies on extant baroque, classical, and modernist orchestral pieces rather than an original score. Selections from Bach, Schubert, Gyorgy Ligeti, and Sofia Gubaidulina establish a mood that alternates smoothly between funerial grandeur, prickly disquiet, and hypnotic terror.

One can discern how the film's screenplay, co-written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, might have dumbed down its scenario into the arthouse version of a later Saw feature, where vile penalties are meted out in the service of mush-headed moral "lessons". Vitally, Killing is only proximally concerned with the grueling Sophie's choice that Steven faces. The film is more absorbed with the pitilessly foreseeable ways that people (especially vain, entitled men) react to errors, guilt, and punishment. Much like Lathimos' Dogtooth, the feature possesses a primeval immediacy that allows it to function as straightforward tale of terror, necessitating no further thematic embellishment. However, the same starkness in the film's scenario – combined with the director's discerning eye for the nightmarish absurdities of love, family, and death – allows for a rich catalog of potential allegorical readings: Martin as God, Martin as the Devil, Martin as religion, Martin as Steven's conscience, Martin as Steven's id. Whatever metaphorical path one chooses, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a harrowing experience executed with darkling precision.

Rating: A-