The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Greek myth of Iphigenia is a story of fatal blunder, revenge and sacrifice.  It is the mythological equivalent of the double bind.  In this myth, Agamemnon offends the goddess Artemis by slaying a sacred deer.  In retaliation, Artemis stills the winds and halts the ships on their way to Troy.  In order to restore the winds to the sky, Agamemnon  must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, which he does by stabbing her and setting her on fire.  Some versions of this myth, such as that found in Ovid’s Metamorphosis find Iphigenia saved at the last moment.  It seems that even mythology can’t decide on an answer in this case.  

See above. I am no renaissance woman, no scholar of the classics, but after last night’s trip to the movies, I found myself combing the Internet, desperate for some hint, any clue, that could help explain what I had just witnessed.  Last night I saw Yorgos Lanthimos’s newest brainchild The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  The discomfort aroused by the title alone, continues and reverberates throughout the film, which is a retelling of the myth of Iphigenia.

Steven, a cool calm and collected surgeon, played by Colin Farrell, becomes entangled with a psychologically disturbed youth named Martin, played to terrifying effect by Barry Keogan.  Martin feels Steven is indebted to him for an operating room blunder that resulted in his father’s death some years earlier.  This imbalance results in Martin’s orchestration of a scenario whereby Steven must sacrifice one family member, or risk losing them all to a mysterious paralytic disease.  

Cue disturbing scenes of children with tubes through their noses hauling themselves up and down stairs using only their upper bodies, their lower bodies resisting as though stuffed with buckshot, their knees and thighs covered in rug burns and abrasions as a result.  While the movie’s imagery is deeply disquieting, there is something even more unsettling about its larger conclusions.

While we are led to feel profoundly troubled by Martin’s stalwart calculations-his movements are driven and guided by a sense of purpose that cannot be perturbed, and  yet that perturbs immensely-perhaps a small part of us understands that a boy who has lost his father might be motivated to seek revenge.  A child’s sense of justice is less nuanced that that of an adult–an eye for an eye suits a child just fine.  Although morally repugnant, perhaps an eye for an eye is truly a closer approximation of justice than anything modern society has devised?  

But what about Steven?  And  his wife Anna? Throughout the movie Steven is pictured hovering over his wife as she sleeps, presumably imagining that she might be an appropriate target of his homicidal machinations.  In trying to decide which of his family members might die, he consults the school principal, pressing him: “Is there one child you prefer over the other?”  Never once does he consider taking his own life–this option is not on the table.  His wife Anna, played by Nicole Kidman, appears to concur.  We are both still young enough to have another child, she tells him, Bob [son] is the obvious choice.   This runs counter to the I would take a bullet for my child narrative, which is the narrative we expect.  It is unquestioned, unquestionable.  To do so would be taboo.  And yet Yorgos Lanthimos pits one seemingly sociopathic character against another.  Martin’s sociopathy is overtly disturbing, but perhaps, in the end, more relatable.  But then again, perhaps parents are often very selfish, in which case Steven and Anna aren’t as foreign as we might imagine.

Midway through the movie, my friends turns to me: “Is this a horror movie or….. what?”  The film has been billed as tragicomedy and certainly there is the odd chuckle and many elements of tragedy.  But this definition omits the film’s nightmarish quality, and the way it challenges our notions of not feeling, of emotional anesthesia. What are the consequences of not feeling?  The benefits of not feeling? The relationship between selfishness and the ability to not feel?  Totally totally totally engrossing and gross and full of feeling, I highly recommend going out and seeing The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  Bring an item of clothing to hold in front of your eyes when necessary and beware that you may never eat spaghetti in the same way again.