Film review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Director: Yorgos Lanthimos)
By Sascha Krieger
The ancient Greek king Agamemnon was a mighty man. But compared to the gods, he was nothing. Long before he would die at the hands of his wife and her lover, the beginning of the final chapter of his family’s pre-destined downfall, while he was on his way to lead the Greek troops in the Trojan war, he killed a deer. A sacred deer, it turned out. Artemis, goddess of hunting, didn’t quite like that, so she manipulated the winds so that the Greek fleet was stuck where it was. in order to free it, she demanded a sacrifice of Agamemnon: that of his daughter Iphigenia. Being the dutiful king, general and subject he was, Agamemnon complied. And even though many later attempts have been made – some unknown ghostwriter seems to even have added such a turn to Euripides‘ original play – to have Iphigenia survivor, this is how the original story ends. Greek film maker Yorgos Lanthimos no doubt knows his Greek mythology. And he likes this ending. Be4cause it gives his a great blueprint to explore motives of guilt, sin and redemption in a world only seemingly far removed from ancient Aulis. And he does so in a film as cold as the hearts of the gods – and as radical in its constistency, as brutal in its straightforwardness as the Greeks consider faith. A film you’ll either love or hate. There is no in-between.
In Lanthimos‘ film, Agamemnon looks like Colin Farrell and is a celebrated heart surgeon named Steven Murphy (despite living in Cincinnati, he is so Irish, Farrell even gets to keep his Dublin accent). And the deer is a man who died on the operating table years ago while Murphy was battling alcoholism. The „goddess“ this time is very human, very disturbed and vulnerable, and very young: a 16-year-old boy named Martin, the son of the deceased man. Steven has somewhat taken Martin under his wing, a relationship that is never quite explained. And that turns more than sour: After rejecting Martin’s attempt to have Steven hook up with his mother (a memorable guest appearance as a dishevelled victim of grief and defeat: Alicia Silverstone), Martin sets events in motion that will seriously affect Steven’s family – and ultimately force him to make a decision rather similar to Agamemnon’s. Barry Keoghan is Martin, a 25-year-old Dubliner (there seems to be a theme here) last seen as an innocent and good-hearted teenager in Dunkirk. Here, he divests Martin with a mixture of mysteriousness, teenage vulnerability, a manic obsessiveness bordering on the pathological, cold-blooded evil and a desire for human warmth. In his mosaic of contradictions, he is completely unreadable and unpredictable as well as totally relatable and convincing at the same time. An agent of fate, impersonal, just a plot funtion, and a full-blooded human, possibly the most alive character in the film. Keoghan pulls this off with a minimalist style that conceal as it reveals and vice versa. A multiple Oscar winner (if the film business were fair) in the making.
Contradiction is at the heart of the entire film. At its centre are the Murphy’s, a perfect family. Anna, the mother (Nicole Kidman in all her iron-like coldness), is a similarly successful ophthalmologist, the children are well-raised and talented: 15-year-old Kim sings in a choir, 9-year-old Bob plays the piano. But, of course, all is not well. A pale, somewhat ghostly light, permeates the film throughout, the images are aseptic, people move as if they were robots. It’s a cold world that constant tracking shots keep at bay, a stifling, chilly, distant atmosphere prevails. There is a formality to everything: the expressions, the gestures, the words. When Steven and Anna have sex, she has to act anesthetised, otherwise it doesn’t work for either of them. When „fate“ strikes, those qualities come to the forefront. Everyone is now just out for their own survival, even the children start competing for their father’s favour. They do so in the coldest, most calculated manner imaginable. Steven, initially, fights, becomes more and more manic as he tries to make sense. But there isn’t any, as Anna, much faster than he, soon understands. This struggle to understand, to come to terms with what happens, is something shared by the viewer, buidling a strenuous connection that can snap at any given moment.
So the idyllic family scene turns into a clinically clean horror story, complete with disruptive and unsettling sound effects. The appearance of reality is stripped off and what remains is a lifeless ghost world devoid of warmth, of love. A world Martin reveals because he cannot fight. As the film continues, the question who the real monsters are becomes harder and harder to answer. Lanthimos tells this story with such a clinical consistency, without any falls offers of empathy or any attempt at redemption, straightforward, with a hopeless logic to it that chills the viewer. There is no attempt to draw them in, give them anything to hold on to. Instead, we are observers, guilty accomplices as we are fascinated, appalled, taken aback, mesmerized. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is as dark as it gets in its world view, its perspective on humanity. It reveals the monsters lurking between the surface. Us. Not realistically, no. But real.