Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a dark parable about eye-for-an-eye justice. But at the heart of the film is the view that children are never innocent.By Christos Tsiolkas.
‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’
There is a scene about halfway through The Killing of a Sacred Deer when Steven Murphy, a cardiologist played by Colin Farrell, is trying to make his son, Bob, played by Sunny Suljic, walk. The boy has become mysteriously paralysed and is refusing to eat. Though Steven has organised a plethora of tests at the hospital where he works, there seems to be no medical explanation for the child’s condition. Sitting with his son in a hospital corridor, Steven, increasingly anxious and terrified of the inexplicability of what is happening to his family, asks the boy if he has any secret he wants to reveal. Steven continues by disclosing a secret from his own past, when he was his son’s age. He had just started masturbating and one day, finding his father asleep but with an erection, he masturbated his father to orgasm. After this revelation, Steven asks his son again if he has any secret he wishes to share. The boy stares blankly at him. He answers that he has no secrets.
I’ve seen this film twice now, both times in a full cinema, and both times the audience has reacted with laughter but also with hostility. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the absurdist director of Dogtooth and more recently The Lobster, and co-scripted with his long-term collaborator, Efthymis Filippou, the scene acts as a sudden and confronting jolt to the audience. Up to this point, we might be unsure of what we are watching: whether the film is merely a black comedic parody of the horror genre, one that lets us into the joke with its abrupt screeching musical cues and highly stylised use of zoom, fish-eye lens, and long tracking shots that recall the cinema of Kubrick but also early Brian De Palma and Italian giallo horror. With this scene, though, another form of horror is inaugurated, one that dares confront the terror and the desire of incest, and the questions of justice, retribution and vengeance. The title comes from the ancient Greek myth of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, who, in one of the many versions, he was forced to sacrifice to appease Artemis after accidentally killing one of the deer sacred to the goddess of hunting’s worship.
Initially, as the film unfolded, my sense was that the myth was a red herring, a structural device around which Lanthimos wished to indulge his puckish, surrealist sensibility. Steven is married to an ophthalmologist, Anna, played by Nicole Kidman, and they live an exemplary WASP bourgeois life. Their daughter, Kim, played by Raffey Cassidy, and their son, Bob, seem a caricature of modern teens, obsessed largely with MP3 players and other devices. But a disconcerting note is introduced almost from the beginning through Steven’s relationship with another teenager, Martin, played by Barry Keoghan. Steven seems to be enthralled by Martin. He gives him gifts, arranges secret assignations. It is as if he is unable to resist any of the boy’s requests. Of course, and I believe quite deliberately, our assumption is that a sexual relationship is taking place, or has taken place, between them. But it isn’t sex that is determining the power relationship between the older man and the boy. Martin’s father died while Steven was operating on him, and it transpires that Steven had been drinking before the operation. It is guilt, and responsibility, that determines Steven’s actions with the boy. And then one day, Bob falls ill. And soon after Martin calmly and coldly explains that one by one each member of Steven’s family will be struck down by a disease that will first paralyse and then kill them. There is no escaping this fate. Steven must choose to sacrifice one of his family. Only then can the curse be broken. Only then can Martin be appeased.
It is a testament to Lanthimos’s intelligence and daring that he always manages to surprise us. It is not the myth that is the red herring in this film but the somewhat contrived surgical mishap that leads Martin to hold Steven responsible for his father’s death. The unveiling of the curse happens only once Martin has introduced Steven to his mother, played by Alicia Silverstone, and only once Steven has rejected Martin’s mother’s sexual advances. The boy wishes to replace the lost father, and he wishes to replace him with a man who represents a wealth, a status and a comfort that is denied him. The confession Steven makes to Bob alerts us to the taboos that are really being challenged in this film. Taboo desire – its danger, its inexplicitness, its emerging within the patriarchal family – is the real subject of the film.
There’s danger in the sharp-wittedness of a filmmaker such as Lanthimos, his almost cavalier insistence on pursuing his personal visions and obsessions even if they threaten to unsettle not only the narrative but also the integrity of his myth-making. One can see why the film constantly references Kubrick’s The Shining. This isn’t only in the use of zoom but also in the framing of interiors and the fact Suljic not only looks like Danny in that film but also shares the same haircut. If Steven isn’t ultimately as deranged a father as the character played by Jack Nicholson in The Shining, both works share a focus on the question of patriarchal control. But though I love The Shining, its final zoom – into the old photographs of the Overlook Hotel and the reveal of Jack Nicholson in a photo taken in 1921, and hence the sense of patriarchal violence being recurring – has never convinced me. The myth at play in The Shining – that the hotel was built atop an old First Nation burial ground – always seemed a contrivance and the direct consequence of such an imperialist usurpation never fully integrated into the film itself. The spot-the-references in The Killing of a Sacred Deer are fun, but they are also a distraction. The mythic resonances in this film are far stronger and more coherent than in the Kubrick film. And it’s not only the horror genre that Lanthimos plays with here. There are also nods to Pasolini’s Teorema. Lanthimos thinks so fast and wants to include so much that it can be exhilarating but exhausting.
But he is a formidable filmmaker. If he verges on being undisciplined when it comes to his ideas, there isn’t a frame of this film, there isn’t a scene, that doesn’t awe by its phenomenal control. For a director so clearly influenced by surrealism and the absurd, there is a classical, austere formality to his filmmaking. It is this mastery of film language, this ability to create an alternative reality that is simultaneously irrational and convincing, that is one of the astounding features of his art. It’s here that comparisons with Kubrick are not hyperbolic. Lanthimos is more than ably assisted by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, one of the unsung geniuses of contemporary film, not only for his work with Lanthimos but also for his camera work on that criminally overlooked masterpiece by Ira Sachs, Keep the Lights On. The cinematography is cold in its hues and in its deliberate aloofness from the actors; it is in constant and deliberate alignment with the intentions of the director.
A film such as The Killing of a Sacred Deer demands a great deal from its cast. Lanthimos’s intention is deliberately alienating when it comes to his work with actors. Just as he needs, as a director, incredible control to never dispel the authenticity of the fabricated irrational worlds he creates, his actors need to sustain performances of detached restraint. They must be sincere but always attuned to the comic artifice of their characters. Farrell, I think, has been reinvigorated as an actor from working with Lanthimos. He doesn’t stint on the perversity of what is asked of him. As for Kidman, I think she is astonishing in this film. Kidman has often been astonishing but I think this is her best performance since her work on Lars von Trier’s Dogville. Lanthimos uses the chill that is an integral aspect of her as a persona, but even when we laugh we are aware of the creeping horror that Anna is experiencing. She remains faithful to Lanthimos’s almost Brechtian ask of her, yet she is the emotional centre of the film. It just might be the best performance of an actor that I have seen this year.
If so, Barry Keoghan as Martin comes a very close second. In some ways it might seem an impossible role to play, for what he is playing is a god. And not the god of monotheistic justice and charity that we are most used to in English-language cinema, but the capricious and pitiless god of the pagan past. It is with Lanthimos’s conception of Martin, and in Keoghan’s playing of him, that the film most honours the myth on which it is based. Keoghan suggests the inhuman disregard of the gods but he also sustains the sense of his remaining a child. I think this is where some of the hostility directed towards the film comes from, why the audiences I have seen it with have been made so uncomfortable. Martin demands justice and will not consider forgiveness. And the real reason for his fury, for his curse, is not that Steven killed his father, but that Steven will not relinquish his control as the patriarch. Sex isn’t a red herring: sex is the core of this film. Martin wants retribution and Martin wants reparation. And without mentioning sex crimes or privilege or gender or race or sexuality, The Killing of a Sacred Deer comes closer than any other film I have recently seen in dealing with the exultation and ruthlessness of the desire for vengeance. It doesn’t ignore the responsibility that Steven must face, the responsibility that he must own. But Martin doesn’t recognise the treachery of his own desires and that his seeking of revenge, in part, arises from this repression. Children are never innocent: they always have secrets. That’s why they grow up to be damaged and damaging adults. And Martin is forgetting the fundamental moral lesson of the ancient myths, their warning of hubris. In their absence, we give birth to something monstrous. The pagan gods must be laughing.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 24, 2017 as "Myth en scène". Subscribe here.