If you’ve seen Dogtooth (2009) or The Lobster (2015), you’ll know that mere prosaic plausibility doesn’t bother Yorgos Lanthimos too much. And his latest film pushes the boundaries of bizarre yet further. Colin Farrell, in his second film for the Greek-born director (following The Lobster), plays Steven Murphy, a successful Cincinnati surgeon.
Murphy seems to have an ideal family life – a lovely wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), plus two bright kids, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic) – even if they do all address each other in oddly stilted, near-robotic tones.
But he also has a mysterious relationship with a saturnine 16-yearold, Martin (Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan), whom he meets in scruffy downtown diners and lavishes with expensive gifts. So who is Martin – Steven’s toyboy? Oh, nothing as straightforward as that. Seems Martin’s dad died on the operating table and Steven feels responsible.
So he introduces the lad to his family. Bad move. Not content with seducing Kim and trying to manoeuvre Steven into bed with his mother (a briefly glimpsed Alicia Silverstone – excellent), Martin tells Steven what he must do: choose one member of his family to kill by way of making amends for his dad’s death. Failing that, they’ll each lose the use of their legs, then bleed at the eyes – and then die. And that’s exactly what starts to happen…
Crossing Sophie’s Choice with Cape Fear, and turning up the chill factor several notches, Killing met with boos no less than cheers at Cannes, where it shared the Best Screenplay prize with You Were Never Really Here. Easy to understand the mixed response; Lanthimos doesn’t do likeable, and nor do his characters. Least of all Steven, who often seems like he’s had his social conscience surgically excised. This is a man whose idea of party chat is, “Our daughter started menstruating last week,” and who, when his hospitalised son refuses food, threatens to make him eat his shaved-off hair.
Conversation, even at moments of high tension, meanders around inconsequential subjects – whether a metal watch-strap is better than a leather one, or ways of eating spaghetti. Lanthimos lets his camera track slowly in and out, fixing scenes with its cool clinical gaze, while on the soundtrack, modernistic pieces by the likes of Kubrick favourite György Ligeti clash and shudder.
Oh, and that title? It’s a reference to Greek mythology: after Agamemnon killed a deer belonging to Artemis, the goddess made him atone by sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia.