By Veer Sharma
Imagine the scene: you are a successful cardiologist. You have a nice home, a beautiful wife, and a son and daughter whom you love very much. You spend your days off drinking and dining with other medical colleagues at fancy parties. One day, a man you are operating on dies at the table. You are disappointed but not distraught; such things happen in this profession. The man had a son, whom you befriend, out of pity but also curiosity. He says he wants to be a cardiologist, just like you some day. But one day the son delivers an ultimatum: a life for a life. If you do not kill a member of your family yourself, they will all die horribly.
Such is the premise of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the second English-language production from idiosyncratic Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou. The tale is loosely adapted from Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides in which Agamemnon accidentally kills a sacred deer belonging to Artemis, who creates violent gusts hindering his voyage to Troy and declares that he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia as recompense. He does so, incurring the wrath of his wife Clytemnestra. In the modern day, Agamemnon has evolved into cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell); Clytemnestra into Anna Murphy (Nicole Kidman); Iphigenia (and possibly her baby brother Orestes) roughly into two characters, Kim and Bob Murphy (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic) and Artemis into the sinister Martin (Barry Keoghan). One self-congratulatory mention of an ‘essay on Iphigenia’ aside, this transformation occurs very organically.
Literary critics have shied away from applying modern terms like ‘psychological horror’ to ancient stories, but The Killing embraces this aspect of the myth. Paring back the usual considerations of classical social relations and philoi etc. of tragedy, the film instead concentrates its energy on the personal feeling of myth. That feeling – impotence in the face of an almighty deity – is transplanted beautifully to a modern setting, rendered as a relatable anxiety of being under the control of forces unknown. Steven’s insistence on more and more medical tests, weak threats to Martin that he will ‘die in jail’ and final farcical attempt to rid himself of responsibility by blindfolding himself and shooting at his family with a rifle while spinning in a circle paint a picture of a man crushed under the weight of blunt vengeful force. ‘It’s a metaphor,’ as Martin matter-of-factly declares.
Being a loose adaptation, The Killing throws a contemporary element into the mix of classical tragedy: medicalised horror. Seemingly never-ending sterile hallways of non-descript doors, plastic gloves, white lab coats; all these coalesce into a deeply unnerving projection an uncertain anguish at unseen forces: diseases, disorders, psychosomatic illnesses. This Hippocratic terror winds itself through the dark comedy that pervades the film; both Steven and his anaesthesiologist insist that the other is solely responsible for all deaths that happen in the operating theatre, tongue in cheek.
While Farrell et al. give highly laudable performances, the runaway star of the film is Barry Keoghan as Martin, not so much a character as a personification of vengeance, a hammering force of nature that beats upon the Murphy family with increasing intensity. Each strained stutter and flick of the eyes lends Keoghan an unmatchable eerie quality – by the films conclusion, after both psychical and physical torment, it is difficult to look at him directly.
It is an unfortunate inevitability that a film with this subject matter should form much of its legacy by defending itself from accusations of obscenity. ‘The resolution of the film,’ whines Calvin Wilson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, ‘depends on a scene so heinous that it’s hard to justify on artistic grounds, regardless of its narrative rationale.’ That such a scene was and has been justified for some 2000 years does not seem to factor in his condemnation. Even Mark Kermode in a supposedly positive 4-star review declares it ‘a Saw movie for the arthouse crowd’, as though the only reason someone would explore extremely harrowing scenarios is out of a perverse exploitative desire. If anything, these reactionary dismissals seem to fit what Lanthimos has done quite well: to take a famous legend – one which is divorced from us by thousands of years and moulded into a fairy story – and expose it to the light of modern cinema, reviewing its themes and updating its presentation to perhaps recreate some of the force and terror of its original reception. The ancient Greeks told horror stories, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a monumental achievement in contemporary surrealist horror.
Viewers who disdained The Lobster will probably not be converted by Lanthimos’s most recent outing. But fans of the director who has emerged as one of the foremost talents of modern filmmaking will be delighted, intrigued and traumatised by what is one of the best films of the year.