In Greek director Yorgis Lanthimos’ alarming, boa constrictor-like psychological thriller, an affluent Irish-American cardiac surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is befriended by Martin, the oddball teenaged son of a patient whose death Steven may have caused (drink and heart surgery don’t mix). Woe betide remote Steven, since the awkwardly polite, vaguely sloe-eyed Martin (a disturbingly convincing Brian Keoghan) is anything but an Asperger-maimed youth shopping for cuddles from a surrogate father. Instead, the conniving Martin, an erudite facilitator imagined whole from Greek tragedy, is miles ahead of such neediness — though the film’s early pacing operates shrewdly to give none of this away.
Lanthimos’ springs his hellfire trap by introducing Martin as a classmate of Steven Murphy’s impressionable 14-year-old daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), giving the outsider further access to Murphy’s stuffy, cold if not near-Gothic household, which includes controlling wife (and doctor) Anna (ice-queen Nicole Kidman) and younger son Bob (Sunny Suljic). What opens as a seemingly tame chess match — demure doctor playing condescending counselor to quirky teen — escalates without forewarning into ramrod revenge as shaman-like Martin hones in on his first prey.
That would be Bob, who suddenly loses all feeling in his legs. Within minutes everything about this upscale suburban American setting turns ominous, if not terrifying, assisted by haunting classical score (Bach, Schubert and Gyorgy Ligeti) that’s heavy on oppressive high organ and percussive notes. “I don’t know if what is happening is fair,” says eye-for-an-eye Martin, his rampage begun, “but it’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.” Yet Aeschylus-styled revenge is two-way street. The undoing will affect all in its path, with the ever-more-frightening Martin called upon to explain actions and consequences in laconic, Victorian-styled English.
Lanthimos, maker of the remarkable “The Lobster,” comes through yet again, striking a deadly mythological tone he manages to sustain for the macabre duration. If on the one hand this is an eccentric revenge story propelled by an improbable conspirator, on the other it is a savage morality play about a brittle family whose ethical (and sexual) complacency allows for neither affection nor empathy. The price for such life-long aloofness is paying the highest of high-priced pipers.