A review on “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
By: Masood Sabet
Yorgos Lanthimos is known for his idiosyncratic stories and effectively and constantly utilizing symbolism in his cinematic storytelling. He’s made six feature films, but his first internationally recognized work was “Dogtooth”, which was his third feature, he made in 2009. Dogtooth brought Lanthimos his first Academy award nomination for the best foreign language film in 2011 Oscars. Unfortunately for Lanthimos, luck was not on his side, as he had to compete with Susanne Bier’s “In a better world”, beautifully depicting modern moral dilemmas and contemplating the extent of personal responsibility, and Alejandro G. Innaritu’s Biutiful. And finally, the Oscar went to Susanne Bier, which was well deserved.
Yorgos Lanthimos is his sixth feature film has his fourth collaboration with his co-writer Efthymis Filippou. The plot is simple. Steven is an eminent heart surgeon, who has a seemingly unconventional relationship with a teenage boy: Martin. The nature of this relationship is revealed gradually, and we subsequently realize that Martin’s father died two years ago and now he lives with his mother. In the beginning, Martin and Steven appear to have an amiable relationship, even with a faint notion of one of paternal-filial nature, as though Steven is filling a void in Martin’s life by acting as a greatly needed father figure. They exchange gifts and regularly visit one another. But as the plot unfolds, we find out that Martin is harboring a grudge against Steven, as he’s been blaming him all along for his father’s death, who died on Steven’s operating table. Apparently, Steven had an alcohol problem at the time, but he’s been sober since. According to Martin, for justice to be served, Steven must kill a member of his own family.
Lanthimos has based his story on one of the ancient Greek tragedies: the story of “Iphigenia at Aulis”, written by Euripides, a Greek tragedian and a contemporary of Aeschylus and Sophocles. The story revolves around Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek army in Trojan war. The army is about to set sail to Troy, but the air is stagnant and the wind refuses to blow. They ascertain the cause and it is the wrath of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, forests and hills, the moon and archery. And this wrath is attributed to Agamemnon, who has offended the goddess. As legend has it, Agamemnon has slain an animal sacred to the goddess and subsequently boasted that he was Artemis’s equal in hunting. So as to propitiate Artemis, Agamemnon must sacrifice his eldest daughter: Iphigenia. There is a direct reference to the story of Iphigenia in the film, when Steven is speaking with his children’s school’s principal.
“She wrote a brilliant essay of the tragedy of Iphigenia, which she read out in class and received an A plus.”
But who’s representing the goddess in the film? Well, who else but Martin? He shares some attributes with Artemis, one of them being the lack of sexual desire. This could be the reason why Lanthimos decided to choose a male antagonist in his narrative, instead of a female one. There are a few indications scattered throughout the narrative to convince the audience that Martin is a god. The first clue is in the names Artemis and Martin, which share the part “art” in the stressed syllable. One of the main attributes of the goddess is the lack of sexual desire. The director emphasizes the same characteristic in Martin, by utilizing a stereotype in viewers’ minds. Kim willfully presents her naked body to Martin, an irresistible invitation for a typical teenage boy, but he doesn’t look impressed or interested for that matter. One could hypothesize that Martin could be homosexual, but there is no other scene, indicative of this hypothesis. When Steven first visits Martin’s mother in their house, they watch a film together, Martin’s late father’s favourite film: Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray. While watching the movie, the camera’s focus in on Martin’s back in the foreground, when we hear Bill Murray say in the blurred background: “How do you know I’m not a god?” As yet another indicator, once Steven, whilst driving towards Martin’s house, goes past a cemetery. In order to reach Martin, Steven needs to go past the realm of the dead, he needs to go to the beyond to meet with the god.
While narrating a paranormal occurrence in a completely realistic setting, the narrator (whether in cinema or literature) is bound to create such an atmosphere in which the occurrences would be believable to the audience. In literature, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s a hundred years of solitude epitomizes such a skill. Yorgos Lanthimos too has successfully created this atmosphere. An accomplishment he partly owes to his composer, Gyorgi Ligeti, who has also composed the music for the most prominent works of late Stanley Kubrick, including Eyes Wide Shut, 2001 A Space Odyssey and Shining. The most disturbing scenes of Eyes Wide Shut wouldn’t be so unsettling if it weren’t for Ligeti’s eerie recurring tune, played by the piano. In “The Killing of A Sacred Deer”, whenever we see Martin, we hear a disturbing theme, as if every time he enters the scene, he brings with him a mystical aura of nerve-wracking tension. However, almost halfway into the film, we occasionally hear the very same tune, even without Martin’s presence. He has already established the new order. The two worlds have collided and we are untethered from the suffocating grasp of reality, but at the same time fallen into a precarious realm of the unknown. However, Steven is still hanging in a limbo and all the endeavours of the narrator, Lanthimos, is to dispel his doubts and convince him to let go.
The exaggerated idiosyncrasy in some characters’ behaviours contributes even more to this mystical quality the director has created in the film. In the first sex scene, after Anna (Nicole Kidman) closes the bedroom door, she turns the lights on, which makes the space dominated by mostly cold colours of the white light and the blue quilts. These qualities, accompanied with the open curtains and blinds, which we see all together in a medium shot, are in absolute contrast with whatever could be conceived as erotic. The couple have this little game they play while making love, which they call “general anesthetic”. She plays unconscious and Steven takes full control, which gives a bizarre necrophiliac shade to their sex-life. Anna’s submissiveness is later reflected in her encounter with Martin and his supernatural quest for vengeance. She shows little resistance and submits totally to his sanctitude. She visits Martin at his house to plea for her children’s lives and later, when Martin’s tied and beaten up in Steven’s basement, Anna painstakingly attends to his wound and kisses his feet, but all to no avail. Steven on the other hand is a control freak and claims that he can take command of any situation by utilizing logic and science. But this time, he’s evidently way off. Steven is dismissive of any notion of the supernatural playing a part in the situation. He vehemently refuses to contemplate the notion, even after both his children are paralyzed and bedridden. Steven, desperately delving into the circumstances for a medical cause, a logical explanation. When Anna suggests the possibility of a psychosomatic disorder, Steven fiercely objects. He knows deep inside that psychology, like a double-edged sword and interpreted as a pseudoscience, could be an easy gateway to the supernatural.
After all Steven’s endeavors to discover the cause of the children’s paralysis, he eventually resorts to an intellectually inconvenient measure. Whatever the cause is, he surmises, has something to do with Martin. He’s on the verge of conversion, and about to stumble and fall into the realm of all possibilities. He kidnaps Martin and binds him in the basement. Steven is alone in this fight. His wife and children have dropped the sword long ago, but Steven is still resisting to concede. He beats and tortures Martin only to realize that what works on man doesn’t work on a deity. The god shall be propitiated with a sacrifice.
Steven’s children are so certain of the ominous fate of the story that they have started manipulating his feelings in the hope for him to spare their lives. Bob crawls out of his bed, clumsily cuts his hair short with scissors, drags himself all the way to the kitchen to talk to his father and express his remorse for not cutting his hair sooner when his father had told him to do so.
“Dad, I’ve been thinking about it and I decided I want to become a cardiologist. Not an ophthalmologist. I lied to mom because I didn’t want her to get upset.”
This is the last straw for Steven, which brings him to his knees, a turning point and indicative of the protagonist’s growth. He carries Bob back to bed and tucks him in, goes outside, sits on the street and bursts into tears. Is this growth sufficient for the hero to overcome the crisis and bring everything into a new equilibrium? We should think so. But there’s more to the story. Steven has not yet abandoned the illusion of control. The next morning, he goes to his children’s school and meets with the principal:
“The boy’s very good at math and physics. Kim, on the other hand, apart from her natural aptitude for music, is very good at literature and history, areas in which Bob lags behind.”
Steven is still adamant to devise his “scientific method” of solving problems and collecting data. He doesn’t beat around the bush.
“Do you especially like one of them more than the other? If you had to choose between them, which would you say is the best?”
It’s a difficult choice for Steven on an unconscious level, as if a choice between mind and body, between reason and faith, and between leaving his hard-earned belief system or clinging to it, the very same struggle he has been through over the entire narrative so far. Steven’s growth is an illusion. He’s endeavoring to make an informed decision, which is doomed to failure, because he is still perversely dismissive of the idea that under the new order, the old conventional ways have to be relinquished.
Steven is finally convinced that there is no escape from the new order and devises a mechanism in order to shirk the responsibility of the impossible choice. This brings us to the most grotesque scene of the film: the sacrifice ritual. Steven binds and gags his wife and two children in the living room, loads his rifle, puts on a blindfold bag, spins around and starts shooting. He misses the first two shots, but the third one pierces Bob’s heart, a heart of math and physics. The spirit of reason and certainty has been sacrificed. The book of Steven’s consecutive failures has concluded.