Call this a horror movie for the art film crowd. It takes its title from a now-obscure Euripides play, “Iphigenia at Aulis,” that even I have not read. In that piece, King Agamemnon has offended the gods by, yes, killing a deer; as compensation he is required to kill his own daughter, Iphigenia.
Here, the Agamemnon character is Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a heart surgeon with a nice family and a professional/personal manner that could be described as cold and detached. The same can be said of his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), another physician, and also of their intimate moments. (Interestingly, ancient Greek actors wore masks for their performances.)
When we learn that Murphy has been seeing a 16-year-old named Martin (Barry Keoghan) and giving the boy expensive presents, we wonder why. Over time, we learn that the doctor botched an operation that led to the early death of Martin’s father.
Martin visits the Murphy home, befriends the two children and invites the doctor to dinner at his mother’s house. His mother makes a pass at Murphy, which he rejects. Later Martin explains that he wants the doctor to marry his mother — effectively, to replace the husband and father Murphy took from them. Murphy says no.
Shortly afterward, the Murphys’ son loses the ability to move his legs, a development that medical specialists cannot explain. Then their daughter loses her mobility.
The doctor confronts Martin, who explains in a matter-of-fact way that Murphy must kill either his wife or one of his children — the doctor’s choice — or all will die of the same progressive, mysterious condition.
Martin’s ability to wreak what he calls “a sort of justice” is never explained, either as dark arts or Greek mythology or surrealism. The movie operates in a parallel world that looks just like our own.
Eventually Murphy gets angry at Martin, but his wife does not lose her temper at her husband or at Martin. (More oddly, to me, she does not do what any mother would in such an admittedly artificial circumstance.) The Murphys are a passionless team in a seemingly impossible situation.
And so the thing plays out.
The film opens and closes with somber religious music, and clashing metallic sounds punctuate the creepiness of the plot. The acting is good, if fiercely restrained, and the script and cinematography harmonize with the worsening situation.
When you leave the theater, the movie’s sinister reality sticks with you for a while. It’s effective as horror and maybe intends us to reflect on how we should atone for the wrongs we have committed.
On the other hand — nah.
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ other projects also have dealt with unreal situations. The most recent, “The Lobster,” featured a bulked-up Colin Farrell as a young man who is moved into a hotel and told to find his life’s mate within 45 days — if not, he will be turned into the animal of his choice. The movie has a bit more humor than “The Killing …” and seeks to make viewers think about customs observed in relationships, but it offers little in the way of practical advice.