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The Killing Of A Sacred Deer

A Greek Tragedy for The Modern Age: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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“You know, not long after my dad died, someone told me that I eat spaghetti the exact same way he did. They said what an extraordinary impression this fact had made on them. ‘Look at the boy, look at how he eats spaghetti. Exactly the same way his father did. He sticks his fork in. He twirls it around, around, around, around, around. Then he sticks it in his mouth.’ At that time, I thought I was the only one who ate spaghetti that way. Me and my dad.

Later, of course, I found that everyone eats spaghetti the exact same way. Exact same way, exact same way. This made me very upset. Very upset. Maybe even more upset than when they told me he was dead.

Pulling from Euripides’ Greek tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, directed by Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, is a deeply divisive and controversial film that masterfully balances pitch-black, absurdist comedy with horrifying moral dilemmas and dread.

The historian in me wants to explore this further. Historically speaking, Greek theatre was heavily interested in ethics, democracy, and the art of thinking. The goals of these theatrical plays were to pursue these hefty moral themes, expand the intellect, and explore ethical issues.

What was interesting about Euripides’ contributions to Greek theatre was that he incorporated humor into his plays – thus breaking the strict, rigid rules of tragedy and making it more malleable – easier for new forms of drama to develop… and I think that’s really key in thinking about the dark humor in this film, which is set against a backdrop of tragedy.

We are introduced to Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a heart surgeon, who has taken an offbeat, oddball teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan) under his belt. Steven is married to Anna (Nicole Kidman, perfect as always) and together they share two young children. As Lanthimos carefully paces his film with precision, there’s an underlying sense of dread slowly building beneath the surface, and we soon realize that Martin may actually be on a path of revenge – aimed directly at Steven, whom he blames for the death of his father on the operating table.

The deliberate, slow-building dread Lanthimos inserts is like a strong undercurrent in the ocean, carrying out to sea anyone who dares wade in its hostile waters. What is so clever about this film is that it purposely takes so long to reveal what is actually at play here, and therein lies the remarkable cinematic experience you FEEL participatory in, as if you are within this nightmare as it slowly and dreadfully reveals itself to be. The beauty of Sacred Deer is that it is a true mystery that takes its time. No one knows what’s really going on, not the audience, nor the family living within this film’s universe.

Lanthimos builds that underlying sense of dread so well, and from the graphic heart surgery opening title sequence – we already know we are in store for something awful ahead.

It paints such a bizarre, haze-like mood that as a viewer you anticipate its breadcrumbs, and the film benefits from the viewer’s constant guessing game of what’s in store next.

A slow burn where every set piece provides a new fragment of the narrative puzzle.

The exact nature of Steven’s friendship with young Martin is the first mystery the viewer has to decipher. It’s apparent that there’s something strange going on here, but Lanthimos doesn’t spell things out; that would be uninteresting for a thinker of his caliber. We might initially assume the liaison is sexual, but as the narrative unfolds, that turns out not to be the case. Then we’re reminded of Fatal Attraction as Martin worms his way deeper into Steven’s life, starts dating his daughter Kim, and exhibits stalker-like, obsessive tendencies toward Steven’s whole family. It isn’t until two-thirds of the way in that we finally are let in on Martin’s plans. Sinister plans rooted in mysticism and karma – the philosophy that there’s a price to be paid in taking a life, and, if it isn’t honored, the results can be devastating. That’s where the title comes into play here. The Killing of a Sacred Deer harkens back to Iphigenia in Aulis, where King Agamemnon accidentally kills a beloved deer in the sacred grove of Artemis. The offended goddess commands Agamemnon to then sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, in order for his plans to bear fruit. This mirrors the pulse of the film’s storyline, transforming into a cautionary tale about the consequences of hubris.

The Killing Of A Sacred Deer 2The beauty of the film is not needing to know… It’s more representative. Lanthimos doesn’t rely on a spelled-out explanation; you are IN his art, feeling it, complicit and along for the ride.

So, the moment that Martin reveals his intentions in his monologue (“They will all get sick and die, Stephen. Bob will die, Kim will die, your wife will die, understand?”). The deadpan delivery of this line so matter-of-factly is so unsettling. The confidence of this monologue, delivered by someone as talented as Keoghan, is truly terrifying.

Is this father going to choose to kill one of his kids, as Martin proposes vengeance for the death of his father at this doctor’s hands? Or is Steven so weak that he can’t even choose and instead is just willing to watch his entire family suffer and die because he is not confident enough to just make a choice? This is eye for an eye, and that’s just how it is… It’s not an easy watch. We laugh in places we damn well should not – but it’s so electric. The struggle of Steven trying to solve this mysterious, God-like power Martin possesses with science is harrowing to witness. Is it infra-sound that he is using? Is it magic? Does Martin really possess the power of God – who can will anything to happen – even suffering and death? Is this all a placebo effect – the power of mere suggestion? These are the kind of ideas that makes the hair stand up on the back of the neck.

In a Lanthimos picture, we see characters who are often so divorced from their reality (and it’s intentionally heightened) that we are able to laugh about it, therefore providing catharsis and release for the audience. Watching a Lanthimos film is like experiencing cinema on a cellular level: you FEEL it in your bones, under the skin. It’s a complete sensory experience.

Lanthimos understands the absurdity of life and the predicaments we humans often find ourselves in. If we are able to laugh (and find release) at the bleakest moments of the human experience, it helps make us feel less alone. And therein lies the POWER of a Yorgos Lanthimos picture, in my opinion.

We are in the hands of a MASTER who knows exactly what he is doing as a filmmaker.

Lanthimos’ visual style is very distinctive in look and choice – we’ve got these long tracking shots, wide panning camera movements that establish a sense of anxiety, fisheye lenses, deliberately uneasy and often queasy visual choices made to emphasize this unconventional narrative unfolding on screen. All of his work to me has consistently been horror-adjacent and never more grim and pronounced than here.

Stylistically in Sacred Deer, it’s clinical, clean, organized, tidy. Both Martin and Steven as characters are methodical in their personality and set in their planned ways, and I think Lanthimos pulls from their personalities and incorporates those traits into his visual choices as well. The characters’ personalities mirror the environments they are trapped within.

The low, droney, discordant score of the soundtrack reminds me of Kubrick’s The Shining. The musical composition amplifies the dread that bubbles right beneath the surface, and the sound crescendos as the film heads toward its climax. It starts quietly, complimentary – a supporting player to the underlying dread – and toward the end it becomes like a sonic ATTACK, so jarring and welling that it comes to a screeching crash. The music is just another technique Lanthimos toys with to make his audience uncomfortable.

The Killing Of A Sacred Deer 4It appears that I’ve become the “go-to source” for Barry Keoghan-related commentary, and I am pleased to inhabit that role, for fewer things have come along in the 21st century cinema scope as exciting as this young Irish actor for me (see my pieces on Saltburn (2024) and The Banshees of Inisherin (2023), penned previously for The Frida Cinema.) This is a badge I wear proudly and with good reason. This kid is the real fuckin’ deal and you sense that straight away the moment his visage appears onscreen in Sacred Deer. One knows they are in the presence of something very special, if they are paying attention.

Never was anyone so menacing just eating spaghetti.

I once heard film critic Anna Bogutskaya describe Keoghan as “a goblin of chaos,” and this really captures his essence. He just BURSTS onto the screen, full of electricity. He is just so alive and present in his work. As Martin – the fact he is so calm and collected – is what’s most frightening about him. Lanthimos films have always been horror-adjacent to me, and in horror, we are used to these tired tropes of psychopaths who immediately give themselves away as the bad guy. But with Keoghan’s portrayal of Martin – he shows none of his cards upfront. He just lingers… and we are mesmerized.

Farrell is particularly fun in strange and artistic roles like this and in Lanthimos’ The Lobster. I think Farrell really gets to showcase his specific ability to tell stories with his entire body when in the hands of a qualified auteur like Lanthimos. Also in the cast is the aforementioned Kidman, personally my favorite contemporary actress. She is remarkably eerie and perfectly off-center in this role of the wife and mother. Lanthimos uses these conventionally beautiful movie star actors like Farrell and Kidman in such wise ways, preying on the audience’s expectations of what we generally expect from these good-looking, familiar faces, and he subverts that expectation right on its head.

Much like Lanthimos latest feature, Poor Things, is a bizarre, f*cked-up Barbie for the weirdos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a Patricia Highsmith-esque Greek morality tale for the deranged, 21st century audience, and I am proud to be in such colorful company.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer screens starting Monday, January 22nd.
Monday, Jan 22nd – 5:30pm
Tuesday, Jan 23rd – 8:15pm


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