Welcome to the deep freeze. This first American movie by the absurdist Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (‘The Lobster’, ‘Dogtooth’) sees him throw the full weight of classical tragedy at a suburban family. Colin Farrell is Steven, a successful surgeon who once made a fatal mistake on the operating table that comes back to haunt him, his wife (Nicole Kidman) and their kids in horrible, bloody fashion.
If that sounds like a simple revenge story, there’s nothing simple about the way Lanthimos sneakily peels back the layers of this horror-inflected tale, stalking corridors and rooms with the gliding, artful precision of Stanley Kubrick. He uncovers information slowly, and for a long time we're wondering: who is that young man (Barry Keoghan, deeply creepy), who Steven regularly meets after work and who later talks of ‘that critical moment we both knew would come’. He's talking about a moment when Steven’s son (Sunny Suljic) finds his legs no longer work. The same then happens to his daughter (Raffey Cassidy), meaning they both now pull themselves around the family home like seals. If Steven doesn’t soon take responsibility for his actions – in the most horrific way possible – the whole family is going under.
Lanthimos’s story is inspired by the ancient Greek legend of King Agamemnon, who accidentally killed a sacred deer and was ordered to sacrifice his daughter as punishment. The film doesn’t have the arch comic distance of ‘The Lobster’, but there's still some dark comedy in the way the characters interact with each other in Lanthimos’s trademark heightened style (to which Farrell and Kidman both adapt impeccably). Even everyday encounters turn strange – like one character asking to look at another's armpit hair during a meal. Check out the sex scenes between Farrell and Kidman; they're like performance art, with one position they call 'the anaesthetic'.
The film’s first shot is a close-up of a heart beating mid-surgery, but there’s precious little warm blood pumping through this beautifully crafted but clinical film. The dominant mood is dread, and violence becomes inevitable. As storytelling, it’s pristine: it moves like a reptile playing the long game. But its cruelty is tough to bear.