Following the surprising success of the surreal, Oscar-nominated The Lobster, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos is back with his second English-language film. Returning to some of the uncomfortable parental themes of his 2009 breakthrough Dogtooth, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an unsettling, disorienting meditation on guilt and the tricky obligation of existing in a family.
It's not just the presence of Nicole Kidman (as Anna the matriarch to Colin Farrell's heart surgeon patriarch Steven) that makes this film comparable to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Like that film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer places the audience in an uncanny world. Lines are delivered in an almost frightening deadpan, Thimios Bakatakis' cinematography makes domestic spaces look uncomfortably huge and warped, and the somnambulant score adds a sense of dread to every scene.
So when we eventually transgress the safe, anaesthetised surface into the violent and psychosexual depths of the film, it's almost a relief. When the film begins, Steven is carrying on an odd an undefined relationship with a young man Martin (Barry Keoghan), but as it is gradually revealed what the nature of his relationship is, further questions are raised. When both of Steven and Anna's children, Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy), are struck with a mysterious illness, Martin's presence becomes overwhelmingly sinister.
The first act of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is masterfully tense. Its episodic momentum drops tantalising hints about what is going on beneath the surface of the story. Arguably, though, when the film eventually does play its hand, the reveal doesn't seem quite meaty enough to carry to symbolic heft that the film goes the great lengths to set up. Unfortunately, many scenes feel as if they can be disregarded as red herrings.
The cast do an exceptional job of adapting themselves to the harsh vacuum of Lanthimos' distinct style. Barry Keoghan in particular shines, tapping into the unpredictable, feral quality of his turn in last year's Mammal. Nicole Kidman, too, delivers the kind of work expected of a woman who has danced with the likes of Jane Campion and Lars von Trier - magnetic and absorbing as always. Alicia Silverstone is also remarkable in a relatively tiny role.
In a way, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is marred by imabalance. Its style is brilliant - nearly perfect - but feels somewhat hollow without a gripping and satisfying story beneath it. The themes of the film, particularly with regard to the cold, emotionless, combative presentation of the nuclear family, are by turns fascinating and devastating, but drawing the links between them is another matter entirely.
Some will feel the cold, clammy hand of anxiety when leaving the cinema. Others will laugh with derision. That's a duality that Lanthimos seems all-too eager to play with, and a sign of his bravery as a filmmaker. He should never stop being as uncompromising as he is here, but perhaps a few more concessions to the audience and their understanding of his endlessly intriguing cinema world wouldn't go astray.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday November 16th.