The Killing of a Sacred Deer (15), two stars

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

With: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan

Runtime: 121 minutes

IT can be a tricky business at times, this film criticism gig. The other day someone asked me why I had given Mother! four stars but nevertheless recommended that she give Darren Aronofsky’s eco-horror a body swerve in favour of seeing the infinitely more cheerful Logan Lucky instead.

My defence? Sometimes a film can be admirable but not enjoyable. Like a piece of designer furniture, you can applaud the technique and admire the daring, but it is not something you would want to curl up in after a long day. A review of 700 words should hopefully allow for such leeway, but there is no such room for manoeuvre when it comes to awarding stars.

Such all or nothing films come along rarely, and always in Oscar season when boundary pushing becomes all the rage. One could avoid the agonising over the number of stars by simply doing away with them altogether (or worse, putting in weaselly fractions), but that seems like a cop-out. Sometimes, a critic has to take a punt and trust readers to make up their own minds about whether something is for them.

This expedition round the houses is by way of introduction to The Killing of a Sacred Deer, from Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos. Another hyphenated horror, in this case a horror-mystery, it is brilliant in some ways, and indeed won best screenplay at Cannes, but as pictures go this one is a bed of nails.

Lanthimos was Oscar-nominated for his last film, The Lobster, a delightfully warped comedy drama about a matchmaking organisation that turned humans into animals if they failed to find a mate, and before that for Dogtooth, also Oscar-nominated. He is hot property, the kind of Euro-edgy talent that adventurous actors like to back.

Colin Farrell, who turned out for Lanthimos in The Lobster, here plays Steven Murphy, a heart surgeon. Steven lives in a gorgeous house in a textbook American town, with a beautiful ophthalmologist wife (Nicole Kidman), their two adorable children and obligatory dog. Life is all perfect straight lines, save for the presence of Martin (Barry Keoghan). Despite Steven’s demanding job, he always has time to meet this teenager for a chat. And if he cannot, an insistent Martin turns up at the hospital anyway. What hold does this youngster have on the older man?

With care and no little cleverness, Lanthimos begins to reveal more. The genius of Hitchcock lay in turning normal into a nightmare. While everything seems everyday enough, the world is turning on its head. Lanthimos comes close to pulling off the same fiendish trick. Luring the viewer in, he first plays the situation for deadpan laughs. Then uneasiness seeps in, followed by fear of where he is heading next. The viewer is right to be afraid, but by now it is too late to change tack. You have to know how this turns out, even if the outcome does leave you wishing you had gone to see Logan Lucky instead.

One of the more straightforwardly amusing things in the picture, apart from Steven locking antlers with a colleague about what depth of water their expensive watches can withstand, is the way the family dog keeps on just being a dog. At one point, Kidman’s Anna storms out of a room after yet another final straw is broken, but there goes the dog, trotting after her, wagging its tail, oblivious to the grand tragedy being played out. Lucky dog. Oh that the viewer could similarly stay above the fray.

But at the same time as feeling horribly rattled and taken for a ride to places I did not want to go, I had to admire how Lanthimos had woven his tale, and the performances Kidman, Farrell, and Keoghan had turned in. Farrell is especially good, beginning the film as tightly wound as his beloved watch and somehow managing to ramp up the tension with every second that goes by. Kidman’s career on acting’s higher wires continues to dazzle. As for young Keoghan, last seen as George, the innocent teenager heading to Dunkirk in Christopher Nolan’s drama, Lanthimos has handed him a golden ticket of a role here.

As for your buying a ticket to The Killing of a Sacred Deer ...