On myths and fables, playing God, and the cruelly funny behavioral equations of Yorgos Lanthimos and his Sacred Deer
The Killing of a Sacred Deer A24
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenplay: Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sonny Suljic, Bill Camp and Alicia Silverstone
Rated R / 2 hours, 1 minute / 1.85:1
(out of four)
If you were to ask whatever deity rules over the kingdom of Yorgos Lanthimos the simple question of why, you might be greeted with that most matter-of-factly unsatisfying of answers: "Because I said so."
And that's assuming there's any kind of answerable, omnipotent order to it at all. The rules governing his world often behave more like physical laws of nature, which may be more or less cruel than the alternative, depending on how one feels about indifference.
In any case, his is a cinema of rules, which is to say it's a cinema of morality. Who or what his characters answer to is kind of beside the point. Just that they answer to it. What The Killing of a Sacred Deer - the Greek filmmaker's unnervingly funny and cruel sixth feature - makes abundantly clear is that they have no real choice in the matter anyway. The rules are the rules. Whether or not you know them already. Whether or not they make any sense.
By at least one perspective, Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) had an obligation to know what kind of moral etiquette he was dealing with. He's a surgeon, after all - he has life and death in his hands as a professional burden. (Although he consciously denies this responsibility. "A surgeon can never kill a patient. An anesthesiologist can kill a patient but a surgeon never can." The anesthesiologist he works with regularly, played by Bill Camp, sees things a bit differently. "A surgeon can kill a patient but an anesthesiologist never can.")
The immutable laws of Sacred Deer are on the anesthesiologist's side. A patient has, in fact, died. Been killed. A middle-aged man, in good health, with a wife and a son. And responsibility has been assigned, several months later, to Steven Murphy. He doesn't know it yet. There is an order to things, but he can't see it. Or can't accept it. But it is inescapable. For him, and his wife (Ann, an ophthalmologist* played by Nicole Kidman), and his daughter, and his son. And even for their strange, disquietingly placid tormentor, Martin, the 16-year-old son of the departed. He doesn't seem to have much choice in the matter, either. As far as he's concerned, the Murphys' retribution is a matter of decorum.
* A sneaky nod to the ending of The Lobster, perhaps?
The way Steven befriended this strange boy in the first place almost seems, in retrospect, like a subconscious attempt to ward off karma. He bought him an expensive watch and everything. Took him to lunch, invited him into his home. But that doesn't preclude his bewilderment when Martin finally lays it all out: Someone in Steven's family must die. This is the punishment Martin has either devised or simply put into motion - the inevitable result of a code too strict to evade. To refer to this as a revenge scheme would be something of a misnomer, since the very concept of revenge is treated as the result of an obligatory, predetermined moral system. Martin is merely at the mercy of the same rules as everyone else.
When he informs Steven that each of his family members will start to exhibit symptoms, one by one, that will eventually lead to their death - until and unless he selects one to kill - he rapidly spits it out in a single-breath mumble. He's not interested in laying out a diabolical plan; he's simply explaining what Steven should apparently already know, like giving Miranda rights. You killed a member of my family, now a member of your family must die. These are the rules we follow.
Martin is not angry. He is not consumed with violence or vengeance. These are simply the rules. He's messenger and loyal adherent - but, to the Murphy family, with his demonstrably, if inexplicably, absolute power over their physical condition and ultimate mortality, is placed in the position of a god. Or something adjacent to a god, anyway. (The film's title comes from the Myth of Iphigenia, which is overtly referenced in one conversation in a gesture that reminded me of Chabrol deliberately dropping a Balzac reference in Le Boucher just to give critics a bread crumb to follow. One can read different incarnations of the tale and come to various conclusions about which Sacred Deer character might fit with which Greek mythological figure - is Martin, rather than a god, the seer Calchas? is Alicia Silverstone's character, Martin's mother, an Artemis? - while other counterparts would be more explicitly obvious. But despite Lanthimos' clear nod, I think it's best to interpret it as a symbolic reference point rather than a strict analog.)
Martin's calm explication of these straightforward yet absurd guidelines is a close cousin to Olivia Colman's introductory scene as the hotel administrator in Lanthimos' The Lobster, in which she hastily explains the system and its requisite timeline as if rattling off a trivial but necessary disclaimer, complete with pertinent bits of fine print. Lanthimos gets a lot of mileage out of his matter-of-factness, allowing the absurdity of his behavioral equations to sink in almost effortlessly. Martin's description of what by all logical measures is an elaborate, seemingly metaphysical revenge plot - involving, sequentially, sudden paralysis, loss of appetite, bleeding from the eyes, and finally death - is as matter-of-fact as the characters' declaration, and open discussion, of basic bodily details. "Our daughter started menstruating last week," Dr. Murphy offers in casual conversation at a black-tie banquet.
Elsewhere there are hilariously animalistic demonstrations and comparisons of characters' body hair - underarms and pubes being the most significant areas of inspection. The deadpan qualities of the script - substantiated by the particular performance styles Lanthimos gets out of his actors, stripped of so much emotional code - are merely precursor to the filmmaker's probing of human behaviors, responses, choices. Employing a standard visual language of high and low angles, and viscerally intrusive musical choices that clang and shriek and squeal and quaver, Lanthimos is playfully severe in his observational methodology. His ruthlessness - namely in the specific ways his characters negotiate and navigate the rules and circumstances they've been dealt - is so cold it makes moments of borderline farcical or even sketch-comedy logic both funnier and more perversely horrifying at the same time. Like Steven going to his children's school and asking the principal which of the two - teenaged Kim (Raffey Cassidy) or younger brother Bob (Sonny Suljic) - is "better." Or both children trying to curry favor, hoping to be spared so that Dad will kill the other one. The kids calmly, mercilessly argue amongst themselves about their own merits, too. "Can I have your MP3 player when you're dead?"
And that's just once Steven has accepted the circumstances. That takes some time. It starts with angry resistance at the moral arrangement he seemingly entered into without knowing it. Even when he's been informed that paralysis and loss of appetite are the first two signs of his son Bob's sudden condition, he angrily tries to force Bob to walk - force him to confess that he's simply faking it - and eventually to force him to eat donuts. He tries a moral code of his own - abruptly telling his son a deep dark (and hilarious) secret, demanding that he immediately reciprocate by acknowledging the ruse.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer would make for a delicious double-bill with the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man - two movies about men seemingly being punished by an invisible authority; two darkly comic (but otherwise very different) tones of authorial voice in which those two men deny responsibility for the misfortunes that have befallen them. Steven Murphy's renunciation of his power, as a surgeon, to kill a patient would make for quite a pairing with Larry Gopnik's memorable refrain - "But I didn't do anything!"
In both cases, then, the question comes down to who, or what, is in control at all. Martin - played by Dunkirk's Barry Keoghan, the surprise standout of a great cast, giving us a creepy-calm antagonist of disturbed, childlike menace - seems to hold that power for the most part, even if it's deliberately unclear how it could possibly be so. At one point late in the film's back half, an exasperated, jittery Steven - in one of Farrell's best moments, which is saying something - mockingly comes up with a fairy-tale formula to solve his problem. "All we need to do is find the tooth of a baby crocodile, the blood of a pigeon, and the pubes of a virgin. And then we just have to burn them all before sunset."
Which would make for an amusingly sarcastic joke if the present circumstances weren't every bit as ridiculous. What does make sense is the scenario itself: A son seeking justice for his father's death. Perfectly straightforward material for a moral fable. Yet Sacred Deer would make the argument that such a fable would make no sense, moral or otherwise. Or, to put it another way, that such fables make sense inasmuch as they follow only their self-determined rules. The circular trick of moral reasoning. In a sense Lanthimos reappropriates the arbitrary laws of myths and fairy tales, tartly suggesting that the world doesn't make nearly as much sense as we'd like to think, or convince ourselves, it does.