This Irish-American, psychological thriller tells the story of a disturbed teenager who insinuates himself into a household, and confronts those who live there with a long-forgotten transgression that has terrible consequences. It shared the Best Screenplay award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, and is a modern horror translation of the ancient Greek myth of “Iphigenia”. According to the myth, the Greek King, Agamemnon accidentally kills a deer that is sacred to Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt. Distraught, he consults a soothsayer who tells him that for penance he must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. In some accounts of the myth, she is sacrificed, while in others she is rescued.
Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a renowned cardiovascular surgeon who lives with his ophthalmologist wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and their two teenage children, Robert (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy) in a spotless, well-ordered household is suburban USA. Steven meets Martin (Barry Keoghan), a fatherless teenager, after one of his surgical operations, and he starts a friendship with him and they exchange gifts. Martin is asked home to Steven’s place, and then Steven goes to Martin’s home to share a meal with his troubled mother (Alicia Silverstone).
Steven is grappling with the fact that Martin’s father died on his operating table years before, and Martin tells Steven that because he killed a member of his family, he must now kill a member of his own family to restore the balance. If he does not, then all his family will die in the same way. First, they will lose function of their legs, then they will refuse to eat, bleed from their eyes, and die shortly after. Stephen’s and Anna’s children will become incurably sick, and Anna will soon follow.
Martin’s prophecy is realised when Robert starts to show unexplained neurological symptoms, followed by his sister Kim. Steven realises that to stop them dying he must make a terrible decision. He tapes up members of his family in the living-room of his home, puts pillow cases over their heads, puts a beanie over his face so that he cannot see, spins himself around, and fires randomly (three times) at his family with a shotgun. He acts to fulfil Martin’s ultimatum.
The film’s plot line is enthralling, but very scary. The movie disturbs and distresses, but underneath its horror, there is a starkly delivered morality tale. Steven is asked the impossible: Martin wants justice and atonement, but the price being asked is too much for any human to endure. What is the price of justice, when the action to achieve it is totally immoral?
The acting in this movie is outstanding. Kidman is wonderfully cold and calculating, as she plays the helpless mother, who sacrifices her morals to endorse a solution that is unacceptable. Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek Director of the movie, directs the film’s scenes (particularly those involving Stephen, Martin, and Anna), to criticise society heavily for its hypocritical norms. The film becomes a frightening, cautionary tale that shows us a world that is devoid of all goodness. It taunts the viewer with the question: How could people agree to do what this family chooses to do – sacrifice its own kind to survive? The movie ensnares its viewers chillingly.
The film is visually striking, with a Roman Polanski feel to it. It incorporates black humour into events, and Lanthimos shows a probing eye for fine detail. The script, in stilted cryptic fashion, marvellously anticipates dread, and the camera looks on the characters as if they are being watched from afar. Lanthimos keeps motivations unclear, and plays skilfully with the line between science and the supernatural. And a throbbing musical score signals the film’s climatic moments.
The film metaphorically explores the myth of “Iphigenia”, and Lanthimos uses it to guide the viewer superbly towards a terrifying climax. This is sophisticated and creative film-making in the horror genre at its unnerving best.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting