Yorgos Lanthimos returns with an ancient Greek tragedy brought to a modern setting with a necessary touch of the metaphysical. The family we meet here is not as dysfunctional as the one in Dogtooth but is quite out of this world, stiff talks, wooden directions and no emotional connection can be traced amongst its members.
Colin Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy, a cardiologist who fancies a drink or two, loves his kids in spite of his emotional alienation and gets turned on by women only when they’re under general anaesthesia (or pretend to be..). Nicole Kidman plays his wife, Anna, an ophthalmologist with less liveliness and warmth than that found in the aforementioned state. They were both excellent and magically synchronised to convey the despair, fear and uncertainty of their great tragedy. Their kids portrayed by Raffey Cassidy (14-year-old Kim) and Sunny Suljic (Bobby) were exquisite little sufferers whose faces presented a fresh canvas to draw the fight for survival.
Stephen has been keeping in his life, in a rather suspicious context and frequency the mentally unstable son of an old patient that died on his surgical table. Barry Keoghan plays the 16-year old boy, Martin with great care to detail and piercing, merciless determination that creeps even the bravest of us. Keoghan’s performance marriages apathy with desperate need for affection, and adult cruelty with childish enthusiasm. In other words, Lanthimos’ and Filippou’s pen drew a multi-layered character that Keoghan’s talent and – I hope you won’t mind me saying- looks did him justice and elevated him to one of the most bloodcurdling cinematic characters of late, in my opinion.
The film deals with grand notions and universal human fears, such as the fear of punishment, the blasphemy of playing God, the meaning and forms of justice, the impossibly hard decisions (of the likes of the 1982 Sophie’s Choice…), etc. The mysterious plot is fuelled with claustrophobic tension, with the characters interacting in dryness and awkwardness, the scenes unfolding in long hospital corridors, big conference rooms and small spaces, that could barely fit the threatening, dark vale of Lanthimos’ camera.
For anyone familiar with ancient Greek myths the title is not a mystery but the very inspiration and metaphor on which the script is based. Long story short, Agamemnon kills a scared deer so Artemis, the goddess of hunt, decides that his punishment should be to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia to balance the scale and restore justice. In our story, the doctor could be the equivalent of Agamemnon who after having committed a grave injustice is called to pay the price by making the most unimaginable sacrifice a parent can make. Artemis therefore, must have taken the form of Martin here, the boy who lost his father and with the power he possesses, or the external metaphysical force he becomes a messenger for (that shall forever remain a mystery…) punishes the doctor for the sacrilege.
I loved the film’s opening scene, it was a marvellous introduction to the doctor’s world, and an invitation for the audience to internalise the cautionary tale about to unfold. The spectacle of a beating heart under music weaved with doom and characterised by a thunderous echo was an engaging start. Also, it is to be admired how masterfully Lanthimos constructs with his monochrome pallet an ambience so bizarre, tense, emotional, gripping, funny and creepy, all at the same time!
For instance, the devastating scenes showing Farrell unable to deal with the supernatural nightmare are followed by scenes infested with black humour that show that in the face of death all social structures crumble, even that of the family institution which we’re supposed to rely on for our survival in the first years of our life and where love is provided and taught in its purest and most powerful form. Astonishing was the scene of the “sacrifice” the tragic escalation and emotionally-charged atmosphere of which was simultaneously cunningly sardonic and vicious.
Remarkable were also the slow-motion shots, when Martin rides with Kim on his motorcycle, the final scenes where the family cross their path with Martin, etc. as it feels like time freezes seconds at a time and thus, we are peeping into the slightest details of one’s face, their eyes, freckles, hair, the slightest movements and expressions and all these dressed with a tortured, dark soundtrack.
After the film you might delve into Greek myths and be astonished by how slightly the darkest aspects of our nature have shifted through the millennia, if you have siblings you might call your parents and present them with the grand question (be prepared to be called crazy accompanied with an angry refusal to respond…), then you might catch yourself focusing on the beating of your heart, you might invent a new game inspired by the film’s most tragic and sardonic scene to play with friends (not telling you what I have in mind, you should come up with your own…), finally you might contemplate what sort of sins you have been committing and dread that punishment might be on its way…