The Killing of a Sacred Deer, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos (2017)

By Laura Smith

An archaic theme plays out in the interior world of a wealthy nuclear family. The superficiality and formality with which the members of the family relate to one another, in speech and interaction, creates a sense of unreality, planting a seed of doubt in the viewer’s mind as to the plane on which the drama unfolds. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is described as a psychological horror. I am not sure horror, or even thriller—perhaps a thriller of inevitability—describe the film but rather a psychological disruptor, a psychological tornado, in which the tornado passes through the onscreen world quietly and in uncannily slow motion. It leaves behind debris of all sorts.

FilmImageThe film opens with an uncomfortable scene, thrusting the viewer head on to the heart of the matter. This initial anxiety rings like white noise throughout the film, increasing and decreasing in pitch, but penetratingly constant. Its only pitch-equal is the closing scene that, while quite a different image, echoes the initial degree of discomfort with which the viewer has been coping for the last 115 minutes.

The story and its name are based on Greek mythology. It is a story that seems completely out of place in the present, with its brutal and archaic rules for justice. Collin Farrell’s character, Steven, is a successful surgeon and head of household who has an unlikely friendship with a teenage boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan). In his review for RogerEbert, Brian Tallerico underscores that Steven plays the role of God, while Martin, who in increasing increments turns the family’s immaculate world upside down, plays that of the Devil. However, this categorical dichotomy twists like hot metal as the story unfolds and the viewer becomes aware of the doctor’s many and serious ‘shortcomings’. As Tallerico points out, the world of Steven appears, next to that of the boy’s, to be demonic rather than mortal. This demonic reversal from Martin to the family is again challenged when Anna, played by Nicole Kidman, acts in a Christ-like manner towards the supposed Devil, dressing his wounds and kissing his feet.

What remains most interesting is the treatment of bodies in the film. The disturbing sexual practice of “playing assault” with his wife is not merely a strange bit of character development, but rather can be understood as a central point around which the film turns. This film, beyond “science versus supernatural thematics” is one of bodily—figurative and literal—relations. When Martin is invited to the doctor’s home, his children—a girl of 15 and boy a few years younger, are curious to see Martin’s body. He is asked about his body hair and he, in turn, repeats this curiosity in his relationship with the older doctor. What is striking is that the doctor’s family, his wife and children, seem to miss evident facts about his body: Steven’s wife only notices his beautiful hands after strangers point them out, his son boasts of his father’s abundant body hair, which turns out to be more than an exaggeration. While we can chalk up the last example to an instance of a younger boy trying to impress an older boy, it remains pertinent that, to his family, Steven does not seem human, but rather is simultaneously a divine authoritarian and a shell, a simulation. Moreover, in Steven’s treatment of their bodies, his family seems likewise both spectral and (explicitly) objectified.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems, on the surface, to be a straight-forward cliché tale of an eye for an eye or a heart for a heart. However, the consistently manipulated degrees of anxiety reproduce in the viewer what is experienced as an automation of paranoid connections and their reversals, a seeming celestial, although immanent equation with no solution. We are not so much—or only—left wondering about the age-old questions of sacrifice, guilt, and justice, but about the world in which such extremes of the mythic and the modern appear as simply two sides of the same coin.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is currently in Cinema Zed