Stop me if you’ve heard this one. The members of an upstanding, upper-middle-class nuclear family are terrorized by a malign force. Their suffering is not entirely arbitrary, because not all of them are completely innocent. (Usually it’s Daddy’s fault.) Their tormentor metes out a cruel and disproportionate kind of justice, and revels in the punishment. Meanwhile, the audience squirms in complicity, taking both masochistic and sadistic pleasure at a game of cat and mouse in which the roles keep shifting.
I’ll stop now. It isn’t quite fair to say, with respect to Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” that you’ve seen it all before. His methods and sensibility are very much his own. But if you were intrigued, unnerved and tickled by “The Lobster” or by Mr. Lanthimos’s earlier films “Alps” and “Dogtooth” (I was), you might be surprised and a little disappointed to find him traipsing over such familiar territory. His previous work — allegorical, satirical, anti-realist and metapsychological — defies genre labels and can seem scrubbed clean of any trace of influence. “Sacred Deer,” in contrast, rings all kinds of frequently-heard bells.
The premise might remind you of any version of “Cape Fear” (except maybe the one from “The Simpsons”) or countless horror movies. Mr. Lanthimos’s techniques — a hovering, prying camera, an atmosphere of chilly, cerebral detachment — owe a debt to the films of Michael Haneke, in particular those like “Cache” and “Funny Games” that subject the guilty conscience of the bourgeoisie to painful deep-tissue massage. But Mr. Lanthimos is less interested in moral shock therapy or social criticism than in aesthetic estrangement. “Sacred Deer” feels like a dark, opaque bit of folklore transplanted into an off-kilter modern setting.
Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a respected heart surgeon. His wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), is an equally successful eye doctor. They live with their two children — Kim (Raffey Cassidy), a wide-eyed teenage girl, and her younger brother, Bob (Sunny Suljic) — in a big house in an unspecified, apparently American city. (The film was shot in Ireland and Cincinnati.) Steven also has a curious friendship with an odd, earnest young man named Martin (Barry Keoghan). The two of them have lunch and take walks together and exchange gifts, and the opening scenes invite the audience to guess at the nature of their relationship.
It’s made clear soon enough. Martin, who seems both a little slow and spookily intuitive, turns out to be the evil force who will torment the Murphys. Some years earlier, Steven had performed an operation on the boy’s father, who subsequently died. In lieu of filing a malpractice claim, Martin has chosen a more archaic — and, in the film’s modern setting, a far scarier and more preposterous — form of score settling. He demands that Steven kill Anna or one of their kids. If he doesn’t, the whole family will sicken and die. Martin describes the process in exacting detail, and then it begins.
Is this a curse? A superpower? As in Mr. Lanthimos’s other movies, no explanation is offered. No boundary is marked between the normal and the supernatural. The normal, in this filmmaker’s world, is pretty weird to begin with. All the characters speak in the same droning, matter-of-fact tone until they are provoked to violent rage. They ask puzzling questions and produce overelaborate answers, not so much like machines but like people doing their best to fail a Turing test.
Sometimes this is funny, and sometimes effectively scary. The auditory migraine of the sound design and the visual paranoia of the drone-mounted cameras help create an ambience of perpetual panic. You laugh to break the tension, and also you can’t help but intuit a comic intention under the cast’s deadpan. Mr. Farrell, half-hidden behind an absurdly self-important salt-and-pepper beard, extinguishes nearly all of his natural impishness but keeps the tiniest ember burning. Ms. Kidman has a gift for seeming utterly natural in the most artificial of settings, and here, as in “The Beguiled” and “Dogville,” she brings fresh air to the hothouse of a director’s imagination.