When Anna (Nicole Kidman) turns to her husband, Steven (Colin Farrell), and asks, “General anaesthetic?” she’s not making small talk about the operations he carried out that day as a heart surgeon. She is inquiring after his favourite sex game, the one in which she lies comatose, her head hanging over the edge of the bed, the tendons in her neck standing out like guy ropes.
This air of numbness pervades The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the new film by Yorgos Lanthimos. Over the course of five features, he has pushed archetypal scenarios to violent extremes without forfeiting the patina of normality. In his sinister black comedies, actors of the highest calibre deliver in straight-faced monotone bizarre or callous dialogue. Niche work if you can get it.
His breakthrough film, Dogtooth, was a portrait of stifling family life exaggerated into horror. The Lobster introduced a surreal and deadly component to the search for love. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a tale of Old Testament revenge presented in the manner of a business transaction.
Steven has started receiving visits at the hospital from Martin (Barry Keoghan), a spongy-faced teenager with a keen but unspecified interest in him. The pair go on walks together. The camera, drifting slightly above them or peering up at their faces from below their eyeline, is never quite on the level. A piercing electronic hum confirms that something is very wrong.
Eventually, Steven invites the boy home to meet Anna and their children, the 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and the 12-year-old Bob (Sunny Suljic). This being a Lanthimos film, the rooms are ever-so-slightly too large and everyone converses in unembarrassed non sequiturs. Kim tells Martin that she has started menstruating. Bob asks to see how much hair Martin has in his armpits. Martin is equally fascinated with the hair on Steven’s body.
Hair, with its connotations of Samson, becomes a running theme. In a rash moment, Steven threatens to shave Bob’s head and make him eat his hair. The one demonstrative piece of action in the movie occurs when Steven is tipping out the kitchen drawers and emptying the cupboards as he searches high and low for a virgin’s pubes (don’t ask).
In the best Pinter fashion, Martin is the outsider who unpicks the stitching that holds domestic normality together. Unlike in Pinter, though, the mood never spikes into rage. Martin has a bargain to strike: in exchange for a past wrong, Steven must forfeit a member of his family.
In the hands of another director, the story would likely have taken on a degree of volatility, but Lanthimos and his regular co-writer, Efthymis Filippou, cauterise emotion at its source.
Eerie gliding camerawork, warmly tasteful lighting and a uniformly affectless acting style conspire to prevent us noticing how steeply the stakes have escalated. Soon, family life is reduced to a muted fight for survival with the members pitted against one another like game show contestants. Trying to flatter his father into not killing him, Bob claims that he wants to be a cardiologist when he grows up. Anna makes a point of wearing her black dress, the one her husband likes so much. Steven has a meeting at his children’s school, where it becomes clear that he is asking the principal to help him decide which child to sacrifice. “If you had to choose between them,” he asks politely, “which would you say is the best?”
The last director to make such repellent material so paradoxically attractive was Peter Greenaway. Like Lanthimos, he, too, attracted casts of increasing quality, often flattening out their natural charisma, until it became apparent that he had painted himself into a ravishing corner. It would not be unreasonable to predict the same outcome for Lanthimos, though at least he is doing one thing that Greenaway rarely could by laughing at himself.
Just look at the extreme close-up of a glossy, throbbing human heart that provides the opening shot of the new film. You can almost hear him chuckling: “Who, me? Heartless?”
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over