One of Australia’s finest actors, Oscar-, Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning Nicole Kidman has never shied away from challenging roles.
From her unrecognisable turn as author Virginia Woolf in The Hours to abused wife Celeste in Big Little Lies via adoptive mother Sue in Australian hit Lion, she’s drawn to depicting complex women.
The same is true of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the latest English-language movie from boundary-pushing Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos.
A disconcertingly creepy, slow-burn thriller played out almost as horror, it’s one of Kidman’s most startling star turns to date.
Loosely based on an ancient myth, Kidman plays ophthalmologist Anna. Living a privileged life in a palatial home, she enjoys kinky medical-inspired sex sessions with surgeon husband Steven. Played by her The Beguiled co-star Colin Farrell, he also fronted Lanthimos’ critically acclaimed black comedy The Lobster.
But their picture-perfect family life with children Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic) is about to be destroyed.
A pressure cooker that turns the screw from its opening surgical close-up, Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou tease us mercilessly.
What is Steven’s relationship to the teenaged boy Martin, who keeps visiting him at hospital? Why does he shower him with gifts? Played by Farrell’s fellow Dubliner Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), one thing is clear: whatever’s going on, it’s not quite right.
Before long, a dark melodrama unfolds that brings an impossibly macabre choice to Steven and Anna’s door.
Profoundly uneasy, there are traces of The Lobster’s absurd humour but it’s played poker-face straight.
Much like William Freidkin’s The Exorcist, even external shots of the family’s mansion are uncannily imbued with dread, as are disturbing camera angles and slow tracking shots from cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, channelling Stanley Kubrick’s Stephen King movie The Shining.
This spooky vibe is further exacerbated by Johnnie Burn’s unsettling soundtrack. Burn worked on Jonathan Glazer’s similarly freaky Scarlett Johansson film Under the Skin.
As compelling as the revelation of Martin’s relationship to Steven is, allowing for a great cameo from 1990s star Alicia Silverstone as the boy’s mother, it’s Kidman who steals the show.
Anna’s seething fury at Steven bringing doom to their door burns steadily behind the glacial delivery Lanthimos demands of all his actors.
Kidman expertly conveys a mother’s determination to do anything it takes to protect her family in the face of her husband’s failure, even if that necessitates an impossible sacrifice.
Certainly an out-there film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer attracted quite a few boos when it showed at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, though that’s not exactly uncommon for unusual offerings there.
Kidman was unfazed. Speaking at a press conference afterwards, she said: “At this stage in my life I’m just trying to stay very open and be bold and try things and support filmmakers that I believe in.”
A commendable approach for an actor at the top of her game who could just as easily cruise along in safe selections, Kidman continues to impress.