"Man, I loved the hell out of Dogtooth. I wish Yorgos Lanthimos would make another movie that made me feel as elaborately horrible as Dogtooth" is not by any means the kind of statement that everybody could or should agree with, but it's a strongly-held belief of your humble author. And as much as I adored the mirthless humor of 2015's The Lobster, the Greek director's first English-language film, neither it nor his 2011 Alps have that special kind of bone-deep repulsion of the director's 2009 international breakthrough (his third feature).

The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his thoroughly divisive latest work (ever since its Cannes premiere, it has attracted both "he's finally lost his mind" reviews and "man, that Yorgos, he just keeps on knocking 'em out of the park!" reviews - and of course, "I hate this man's art and all it stands for" reviews, but let's discount those for now), doesn't quite get us back to that wonderful Dogtooth queasiness, but it's sure doing something pretty amazing. The film has a plot - one it loosely borrows from the myth of Iphigenia, whence the title - but the plot is easily the least-interesting part of it. Rather, the very amazing thing going on in The Killing of a Sacred Deer has to do with the way Lanthimos and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis have constructed some of the most altogether distressing images in 2017.

Not the kind of  distressing images that get that way because they show distressing things, though there's some of this. Right from the beginning, in fact: the film opens with a much too close close-up of some goddamn organ in the human chest pulsing and throbbing and throbbing and pulsing endlessly as the opening of Franz Schubert's Stabat Mater in F minor blasts on the soundtrack, in all its soaring oratorical splendor. I don't know much is the image, which is at any rate extremely gross, and how much is the jarring incongruity of the image and music, but it worked on me real hard; I was already twitching and uncomfortable even before the movie had properly started, even before it depicted much of anything that resembled content.

But hideous organic matter is one thing. The genius of The Killing of a Sacred Deer lies in how it simply, even casually, uses the most undistinguished sort of material to wring out an effect just as thoroughly devastating as that opening shot of the throbbing organ. The filmmakers stage fucking near everything in the movie from off-putting, bizarre angles: one very simple piece of blocking of our protagonist, Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, the star as well of The Lobster) standing several feet away from the odd young man who has grown obsessed with him, Martin (Barry Keoghan), talking on a Cincinnati rooftop, is transformed into some horrible visual mutant, with the camera drastically lower than would be standard for this kind of set up, and moving in a sideways tracking shot past the actors (who are farther back than would seem to be necessary, though this barely registers), so that the closeness of the asphalt surface of the roof sweeps by on the bottom of the frame. It's so perceptually unusual that the whole moment is charged with a feeling of dysfunction, disorientation, wrongness, and while this early shot is the first time I stood up and took notice, I quickly gave up trying to keep track of how many shots throughout the film did similar things. The camera pointing down, the camera pointing up, the camera tracking forward but so close to the ceiling that it feels like it's going to keep clipping those plastic "EXIT" signs that you get in generic institutional spaces (a hospital, in this case), and every permutation of angle, height, and movement you could think of, except for the ones that normal people use to film normal conversations.

The effect of all of these - that "oh my God, are we going to hit the EXIT sign?" one especially - was, for me at least, to invest me with a sense of anxiety more profound than I can recall having seen in a movie theater in a very long time, if ever. This is a movie one watches with one's body - not since Jean-Luc Godard's assaultive use of 3-D in Goodbye to Language made me feel like my face was being set on fire have I had such an overwhelmingly physiological response to a movie. The images in The Killing of a Sacred Deer made me so extremely tense and anxious that I felt my stomach tightening and churning, virtually nonstop for a full hour. And it's not just the images doing it, either; the film has one of the most perfectly-assembled non-original music soundtracks of the year, including wonderful classical choral pieces like Schubert's, and the first part of J.S. Bach's St. John Passion, but more to the point, the distinctive jangling notes of György Ligeti, whose music was so critical in creating the inhuman atmosphere of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the visceral menace of his The Shining. Even better - and crucial in moments like that profoundly unsettling rooftop scene - are the film's use of compositions by the experimental composer Sofia Gubaidulina, performed by avante-garde accordionist Janne Rättyä, two people whom I've never heard of before, but now I'm instantly obsessed with both of them.

At any rate, "The Killing of a Sacred Deer made me so anxious that I thought I might vomit!" is sincere and fulsome praise, but not the sort that's going to put butts in theater seats. To a degree, though, that's kind of all I've got. The plot of the film finds Steven growing increasingly dubious about the very weird, clingy Martin, with Keoghan's performance outstandingly off-kilter and nervous-making. Eventually, Martin presents Steven with a horrible choice involving his family: anesthesiologist Anna (Nicole Kidman), 14-year-old daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and barely prepubescent Bob (Sunny Suljic), and this is exactly the point at which the film started to lose steam. The characters are wonderful caricatures, right in line with Lanthimos's brittle sense of humor and love of depravity: the cast gamely strips their line deliveries of any affect as they recite stilted, warped dialogue. It's equal parts Dogtooth (in the content, such as Steven's cocktail-hour pleasantry that his daughter has just started menstruating), and The Lobster (in the chilly, clipped quality of the delivery), without being as fresh or purposeful as in either. Still, the harsh, even vindictive anti-social comic energy that worked so well in those films transfers over here mostly intact.

Once the film starts to actively center on Steven's hard moral choices, though, it begins to dry up. The aggressive style clearly couldn't be kept up; an hour was already quite exhausting enough. But as it ceases to be a thriller through style and form, The Killing of a Sacred Deer ceases to be a thriller at all, which is maybe the point; it becomes a frankly bland, detached exercise in coding and decoding symbolism around moral philosophy, which I hope isn't the point. The blandness, I mean, not the philosophy.

I absolutely owe the film another viewing, and I look forward to it: halfway through the film, I was convinced it was the best thing I'd seen in 2017, and even if it does fall apart as vigorously as I suspect, I'll always have those EXIT signs. Besides, no matter how much the film loses my attention in the back half, it has the courage of its what-the-fuckery, to borrow a friend's phrase. Entirely successful or not, whatever the shit it is that The Killing of a Sacred Deer is trying to be is quite unlike anything else that's out there, and even at its most frustrating, the film's extravagant dark-comic provocations are arresting, lively, and vivid.