Though shrouded in enigmas, Yorgos Lanthimos’ disturbing new film leaves a simple question lingering in the mind: Why, of all things, is it called “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”? Seemingly irrelevant as one watches the film unfold, the darkly allusive title is, in fact, at the very heart of the drama’s uncanny logic.
Lanthimos has composed a chilling contemporary variation on an ancient Greek myth, in which King Agamemnon, having inadvertently slain a sacred deer belonging to the goddess Artemis, is forced to repay her with the sacrifice of his eldest daughter. In the director’s film, Steven (Colin Farrell) is a highly successful cardiologist who accidentally killed one of his patients, while inebriated, during open-heart surgery. Haunted by visits from the patient’s teenage son Martin (Barry Keoghan), he is now fated to take the life of one of his own family members. If not, Martin warns him, they are all doomed to pass through three stages – paralysis, starvation, and bleeding from the eyes – before their inevitable deaths.
Lanthimos implies the existence of this curse with eerie camerawork, using an array of impossible angles to incarnate a paranormal presence stalking Steven’s family. This is epitomized by the extreme aerial shot of their son as he collapses, paralyzed, at the foot of the hospital escalator – a moment that feels witnessed, or even willed, by some higher power. The uncanny contours of this cursed world are also heightened through a combination of fisheye lenses, low-angle prowling, and reverse tracking shots that waver brilliantly between animal instinct and cold clairvoyance. Lanthimos makes us terribly aware of the scales of justice hovering over this too-perfect family (accomplished surgeon, beautiful wife, promising children), prepared to jolt them out of their privileged apathy.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer reveals the ease with which people distance themselves from moral responsibility in a world ruled by emotional detachment – where the bond between patient and doctor is no longer sacred but merely clinical. As long as a person is insulated by enough advantages and wealth, Lanthimos implies, he can continue to silence and smooth over his crimes and injustices. Though arbitrarily cruel in its execution, the director’s eye-for-an-eye tragedy demonstrates what it means to pierce through this complacency and make someone experience guilt on a visceral level. The film may be an extreme revenge tale in a literal sense, but it can also be read metaphorically as Steven being forced to relive, and internalize, what he did to Martin’s father not as a mere mistake but as an act of killing.
In the way it blurs the mechanisms of guilt and revenge, The Killing of a Sacred Deer will remind many viewers of Michael Haneke’s Caché. This film’s privileged protagonist also finds himself hounded by the son of the man whose life he stole, and Haneke makes it impossible to separate the paranoia of his repressed conscience from his suspicions that the son is actively and alarmingly trying to avenge his father.
Similarly, in Lanthimos’ film, there are numerous scenes that make us wonder if Steven merely hallucinated some of Martin’s menacing visits to the hospital. After all, he is the one who seeks out Martin to assuage his own guilt, as we see when he offers the boy an expensive watch at the beginning of the film. Ironically, this gesture of kinship seems to mark the very moment where their fates become antagonistically linked – a sardonic foreshadowing of how Steven’s orderly, comfortable existence will be brutally upended.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is as much about the unearthing of this family’s buried secret as it is about the ambiguous nature of justice. One of the most telling images comes right during the film’s opening sequence, where, after a graphic shot of the fatal open-heart surgery, the camera lingers on the trash bin where a pair of immaculate hands have just removed their bloodstained gloves. Right away, Lanthimos’ film underscores the swift concealment of guilt – the suppressed horrors beneath Steven’s outward perfection. It is with no shortage of irony that everyone, including Martin’s mother, marvels over his clean beautiful hands when he in fact has blood on them. This is what makes the later scene in the kitchen so subtly brilliant, when his wife Anna (played by an icy Nicole Kidman) mockingly admires his hands –intimating, of course, that she knows he killed Martin’s father.
Yet even as she encounters this disquieting truth, Anna appears even more ruled by calculation and detachment than her husband, and the film’s descent into arbitrary violence comes as a sudden blow. The ending is left open to interpretation and raises questions not only about the moral limits of retribution but, more importantly, about the extent to which humans cause their own downfall. This, after all, is what defines Greek mythology.