THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017) has to be one of the very few recent works that haunted me like a stricken memory and this is necessarily not a negative trait. Its disturbing tone is earned since I aligned it with the growing spate of urban crimes and psychological tortures that have become a common feature in our modern world. It’s kind of a moral haunting where the supposed absurdity of the situations presented is actually more real than the limits of our comprehensions about human nature. In 2019, man made disasters, nuclear threats, environmental degradation and the absolute mockery of justice have added fuel to that fireball rolling down an ever precarious slope and hurtling towards us, non committal mortals seeking innocent reviews of present circumstances.
In YORGOS LANTHIMOS’ film, the familial ethos is eerily strategic, specific to a manicured American upper middle class space where the tale of one beautiful family ( Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic) is the one on the inside. The outer realm ( made up of few people like the ones essayed by Barry Keoghan, Alicia Silverstone and Bill Camp) is the one that puts push to shove and a repressed cultivated internal membrane of the four brings to the open disagreements, ugly scars and conflicted flashpoints in slow boil. The nature of the scripting is such that any kind of bombast is not allowed given the moral weights all have to carry. Their particular predicament ( or for that matter of anyone going through these motions in life) calls for sneaky, secretive, almost whispered exhortations as it is an unholy pact between them to ensure no external agent intervenes or even attempts to. It feels like an universal entry in this age of suppressed emotions and lurking dangers where the power of harm is wrested in the hands of the young, in this case a teenager ( Barry Keoghan) who has everything in his disposal to do that and overturn lives. Now isn’t that a byproduct of our excessively dissipated youth culture, one in which things like gun control and fear of consequences is out of the spectrum for so many ?
REPULSION FOR A PAST DEED BY SOMEONE ELSE , THE RESULTING FEELING OF REVENGE DRIVES HIM AND THIS STORY FORWARD. Serious psychological damage is ingrained in his unseemly demands and is compounded by pain that has remained irreconcilable.
All these elements come together to more than suggest and express that this is a cinema of loneliness and Yorgos addresses strains of cynicism, nihilistic tendencies in the people’s robotic vocal permutations, aided by the mid shot to close up pans. Implying a seemingly prosperous happy facade crumbling to bits with over head shots creates a level of distance, detachment as regards the plot and the musical score by Yorgos Mavropsaridis is on lines of this depressive, uber melancholic development as the film progresses towards one of unchecked operatic tragedy.
This sustained theme of existentialist absurdism is embellished by musical cues likened to banshee screams, fingers on a chalkboard and falling structures. Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography adds an edginess to this organized portrait of disintegration, with my intentional emphasis on the term ‘organised’. Viewers will realize what I mean when they watch it.
As for the plot, let’s just say that the nature of bonding between the doctor ( Colin Farrell) and the teenager ( Barry) keeps us guessing until we are given eventual details of how an alleged case of medical negligence on the former’s part has wider implications. Soon this mutual agreement of verbal exchanges and long walks between them spills over to his family and a pleasant camaraderie tinged with implosive undercurrents leads to instances of physicality , particularly a hypnotic spell of complex moral flexing and then immobility that claims the two kids ( Raffey and Sunny). As they crawl and struggle to come to terms with the vengeful boy’s damning words that start to literally manifest in their physical debilities, a slant towards the incomprehensible occurs, treated, however, with striking realism. We soon discover why it is so.
We are all marionettes of fate, with others holding the strings. The unique pall of horror is originally designed to unsettle our established, static thoughts about a larger evil at play amidst our collective consciousness. I got an almost Kubrickesque and Polanskian impression with the unfolding of imagery here. It’s so serene, so graceful on the surface that the foreboding comes with a brutal slow burn. Violence of the mind parallel to a plague of joylessness unintentionally created by our own moments of weakness is a curse within urbanized circles of prosperity.
It opens with a choral lament ala Greek tragedy and ends with the same. Director Yorgos, a Greek himself, takes an Euripides play IPHIGENIA AT AULIS and fuses it with a contemporary spin that proves the darkness of afflicted souls, especially when poised to make difficult choices and alighted by impossibly complex human mindsets, is mightier than God’s wrath. On earthly realm, the darkness swallows us whole. While the opening minutes unfolded, I could sense this very specific atmosphere exactly attuned to one in Greek and Shakespearean dramas and even if it wasn’t based on an Euripides one, the hints are clearly there for those familiar with that tone. Here the exploration is of the interior mindscape of our bloodthirsty selves ; concepts of crime and punishment take us, hence, to extremities. This insight also is notable in the manner of intimacy akin to chamber pieces, i.e works set within enclosed spaces and so that theatrical input is very much present in the performative arcs and the claustrophobic focus on actions .
As for the title, the ‘sacred deer’ – to me- is symbolic of a precious entity / being coming undone from points of an already fragile innocence. Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, is an eternal sacred deer then, in my opinion.
Elsewhere, the images that have stuck in my head are of the daughter (Raffey) singing an ominously simpering version of Ellie Goulding’s Burn, an essay on Iphigenia written by her as related by her school principal, the image of a heart being operated upon in the beginning while the siblings talk about using their respective Mp3 players before death beckons them. The pivotal image of the father (Farrell) with a gun and a blindfold is the stuff of nightmares. These popular culture fixtures and contemporary inputs are interesting prisms to humanize the tragic experience here, pointing towards the possibility that in the midst of normal day to day routines, fact remains that somewhere things like these occur. Human sacrifice, an ancient, primeval ritual, here finds a transactional, gloomy track with the tables being turned on gender dynamics of its original Greek source.
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER addresses a culture of depressive atomization affecting a nuclear family – that traditional mould of four – in an uniquely realized inner realm of grave contemporaneous outcomes. It stings and haunts because it is so close to the bone, in the way it diagnoses human behavior of all kinds. From the myth of Iphigenia emerges a tale of our modern era.
All the while you watch it, you get the feeling that an overheated kettle is going to burst too close to us. That’s the underlying tension, grippingly handled here.
** below is a Wikipedia entry on the play to give you an idea about its origins.