Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/Ireland/USA (2017). Screenplay by Efthymis Filippou and Yorgos Lathimos. Cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis. Edited by Yorgos Mavropsaridis. Production design by Jade Healy. Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp.
Yorgos Lathimos’ fifth feature film is another difficult journey, with little of the dark humour of his previous film, The Lobster. It’s a kind of unanimated anime in which fantasy is underpinned by a terrible psychic reality. The price one must pay for emotional honesty and right conduct is indeed daunting, nothing less than our willingness to shed the entirety of our defences.
First, there was Francois Ozon’s L’Aimant Double with a startling match-cut of vulnerable and intimate fleshy images to start his film, and now Iorgos lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), no less visceral from the outset, from the start getting across the idea that surgery is both a delicate and brutal business, and that the team undertaking it is an assembly of the god-like, able to bring us back from the dead. The heart surgeon, at the apex both of the team and the profession, if god-like, is therefore deemed to be infallible: mistakes are not permitted and, if they happen, must be tidied away (perhaps the anaesthetist was at fault). The consequences of failure go beyond the pale, beyond the surgeon’s own ambit of despair, sending out an immense, consequential ripple of catastrophe that will touch many lives.
Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a successful Cincinnati heart surgeon living comfortably in a well-heeled neighbourhood with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and his two children, teenage daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and her younger brother, Bob (Sunny Suljic). It emerges that Steven has lost a patient during an operation, a loss that, ultimately, cannot be ascribed to the anaesthetist, Matthew (Bill Camp). Perhaps out of a sense of ruminative guilt, Steven has befriended secretly the son of the dead patient, a rough-looking kid called Martin (Barry Keoghan) who now lives with his widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone) in a less salubrious suburb than the Murphys’. Martin sees a family that is very desirable, and his mother’s strangely intimate longing for Steven is not something that Martin rejects; may such a desire mutate into disapproval through exclusion? And how might Martin know that Steven was negligent? Or was the death of his father, in itself, enough? (Such are the ruminations possible in this film.)
It becomes clear very quickly that a vengeful Martin, like the stranger in Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) and the little boy in Ruben Ostlund’s The Square (2017), has the capacity to disrupt and re-order fundamentally—to reveal to Steven that his family will die in remorseless stages unless a terrible reparation is made for his father’s death. As Martin’s curse begins to bite, Steven becomes ever more desperate, seeking frantically ways to prevent his family’s slow slide toward death, brutally afflicting Martin far beyond what we might expect of him. Anna tries to uncover the truth behind this terrible impetus to retribution, but Steven is as well defended against his wife’s entreaties as he is against his own mounting inner voice of dread.
Clues to the meaning of the fantasy and phantasmagoria of the drama lie in the title of the film, and in Kim’s teacher’s mentioning to Steven and Anna that their daughter’s essay on the ‘tragedy of Iphigenia’ was outstanding (i.e. a version of the story of Iphigenia’s transport to the island of Aulis that purportedly results in her death through sacrifice). The ancient Greek stories and myths of Iphigenia are various and complex in their symbolism, and as many envisage her survival as do her demise. We perhaps know best Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, which recounts how Agamemnon and his troops, sailing to Troy, put in at Aulis, where the king accidentally kills a deer in a grove sanctified by the goddess Artemis. The goddess punishes Agamemnon by altering the wind direction so that he cannot sail on to Troy. To release the right wind, he must sacrifice to Artemis his most beautiful, cherished object—his daughter Iphigenia, who is to be brought deceitfully to Aulis. Agamemnon’s troops demand her swift death, as they are raring to go to Troy. (This demand from a dominant social group is a reminder of Lanthimos’ preoccupation with group suppression of personally expressed feeling.) Iphigenia willingly seeks death for the good of the Greeks, and only at the last minute is she spared by the gods. Only through his agreement to an extreme sacrifice has Agamemnon been able to square the circle and continue to live.
From the start, the film has an oppressive quality, confining us in an unreal city, in cold hospital corridors and rooms, in the Murphys’ remarkably sanitized house, in bleak diners and car parks, and in the claustrophobic secrecy of cars. The colouring and lighting are either highly contrasted and washed out, and a roving, close focus on the characters reveals faces that are blank or lack animation even under duress. In Steven, Colin Farrell achieves a terrifying mask, with a robot-like mechanical delivery that exceeds even his own laconic role as David in Lanthimos’ own The Lobster (2015). He is a man closed down, hard to rouse to warmth or passion, needing a degree of ritual to get sex going. His coldness inhabits the unrelievedly joyless spaces of the film. It has become evident that Steven is a recovering alcoholic and may have been negligent in operating on Martin’s father; and if he were not, he believes that he is. The anaesthetist Matthew, grossly calling in a favour from Anna, tells her that Steven had been drinking on the morning of the operation.
As the catastrophe develops, one is forced by the surreal fantasy medium to examine what is being suppressed in the family, particularly in Steven. Lanthimos’ preoccupation with the difficulty, indeed unacceptability, of grieving, in Alps (2011) and in The Lobster, point to a man who is so inured to self-knowledge that he can hardly begin to accept responsibility for what he may have done. Martin’s relentless bewitching of Steven’s family makes the psychic sacrifice unavoidable: that to atone, Steven must lose something that is as dear to him as was Martin’s father to the boy—‘some kind of justice’ is paramount. In this symbolic space, Steven must begin to grieve and atone simultaneously if, as a victim, he is not to lose his soul, that is to say, all that he loves. In the end, it comes down to him losing part of his illusion of himself as some invincible and unassailable being, free from consequences. Martin’s revenge creates through sacrifice the surrender of Steven’s entire defence against feeling and grieving. The terrifying denouement of the film sweeps away Steven’s earlier attempts at coercion and brutality—and even an attempt by him to diffuse the power of secrets in the family through a lurid confession to his son, withholding, of course, the really big secret—with an act of devastating surrender that he (and we) are unable to look at.
The fantasy drama fits the world of myth like a glove. Lanthimos cuts loose from realism to present an archetypal story of considerable suspense centred on revenge and retribution (a suspense reminiscent of Jonathan Glazer’s Birth  which also concerns the suppression of family feeling and secrets, with devastating consequences). This barely begins to account, however, for the emotional punch of the film as the necessity for sacrifice becomes inevitable. Powerful acting lies at its heart, residing in Colin Farrell’s cruel, glacial reserve and Nicole Kidman’s quiet exasperation. Barry Keoghan is remarkable as an unlikely kind of exterminating angel, leading Steven to his brutal redemption. Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic complete the quintet as the children, powerless pawns in the game of a father who is not prepared yet to love them enough. The music is as varied in its sources as that for for The Lobster, opening and closing with devotional choral music of great power, with a fascinating choice of compositions in-between, including much by Sofia Gubaidulina, an avowedly spiritual composer interested in the ‘restoration of the connection between oneself and the Absolute’.
In this film, strangely, one is reminded of the conventions of Japanese anime, in which fantasy flourishes freely, but with the characters’ actions invariably rooted in psychic reality. Fantasy and myth thus lead to understanding through the revelation of the absolute need for right conduct when life demands a terrible honesty, brutally and inexorably prising us free from our immense defences.