The ancient Greeks told the best stories. Tales like Homer’s The Iliad have been recycled time and time again, its themes ever-resonant centuries later. Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis is one such timeless story, similar to the biblical tale of Abraham and Issac in its exploration of faith and sacrifice. Greek king Agamemnon accidentally kills a sacred deer that belonged to Artemis, goddess of childbirth. Because old-school Greek storytellers were all about the eye-for-an-eye style of justice, Artemis demands that Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter as penance.
This serves as the skeletal plot of Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest film, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer. Dr. Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a wealthy, successful heart surgeon with access to the latest and greatest scientific advancements in the medical world. His nuclear family consists of wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), 12-year-old son Bob (Sunny Suljic) and 14-year-old daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy). He befriends Martin (Barry Keoghan), the slightly odd son of a patient who died under his care. Martin eventually reveals that he holds the doctor wholly responsible for his father’s death, and forces Dr. Murphy into making an impossible choice. “It’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice,” says Martin. From Colin Farrell's protagonist to Barry Keoghan's antagonist and everyone in between, Lanthimos refuses to pigeonhole his characters into a moral binary system. This results in an unsettling engagement that confronts the audience with its own ethical murkiness.
Martin is a strange young man. He speaks with the sort of politeness that would normally make his character a likable one; when he awkwardly hands out sincere gifts to the Murphy family upon his first time at their home, it’s sweet. He later says kind, well-meaning things with the sort of deadpan delivery that we’ve come to expect from a character in the Lanthimos cinematic realm. But when he uses the same deadpan tone to deliver a cold-blooded threat to Murphy, previous audience impressions of him are undermined, and his sociopathic villainy is revealed. Without a quaver in his voice, Martin sits opposite his paunchy companion and discloses that the doctor will sacrifice a loved one in order to atone for the death of Martin’s father. Audience perception is further complicated when he explains his motives for the torment he inflicts upon the family. Martin’s external earnest politeness conflicts with the self-righteous sadism that simmers within him. While his sense of justice and retribution is extreme, the audience ultimately understands why Martin is motivated by them, though it doesn’t lessen the chilling effect he has.
Colin Farrell’s Murphy is no different, despite being the film’s protagonist. He’s unique in that he’s neither hero nor anti-hero, but must pay heavily for his sins nonetheless. He is fully aware that a patient died under his scalpel, but doesn’t believe himself guilty in any way. He won’t even acknowledge the problem until Martin makes the issue unavoidable by exerting pressure on his family. Once that pressure is applied and Bob and Kim’s symptoms advance as Martin predicted, Murphy’s true character emerges with none of the self-control that he previously displayed in his day-to-day practice. From dismissal to victim-blaming (Murphy initially claims that his children’s lack of appetite and loss of leg function is purely psychosomatic) to a merciless beating, the doctor becomes less callous and more engaged as Martin turns up the heat. Lest we feel too sympathetic for the doctor, it’s later revealed in the film that Murphy was drinking on the day of the fateful heart surgery. So not only did he make a poor decision that possibly led to the death of a patient, but throughout the story he absolves himself of guilt. “An anesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon can never kill a patient,” he states as a matter-of-fact. Murphy soon learns that no matter how much he washes his hands of it, his complicity is plain to those affected by his decisions. Both Murphy and the world of Sacred Deer are defined by guilt and complicity.
For all of its emphasis on matters of the heart (including one of the most stunning opening sequences ever, of a live open-heart surgery), The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is removed from emotional engagement with both subject and subject matter. Lanthimos works with director of photography Thimios Bakatakis to craft a visual approach not unlike Kubrick’s in its curious observation of its characters. The camera locks in on its players from a safe distance and slowly pushes in, careful to never be obtrusive. Constant movement is juxtaposed with aseptic, stagnant shots looking down upon the actors, as if from a watchful third party. Labyrinthine hospital hallways are navigated via Steadicam as everyone speaks with a clinical manner, whether they’re talking about breakfast or more intimate matters. This is a sterile world where Murphy refers to his daughter’s menses at a dinner party. A cold world that allows for Martin to sloppily devour spaghetti while justifying his horrible threats. In this world, and in our own, people like Dr. Murphy can prosper while cleansing his hands of the blood he’s spilled, as much as this world (and our own) allows for people like Martin to get away with their crimes. It’s not necessarily the characters that are good or bad, it’s the warped playing field that enables devastation and good fortune to be visited upon innocents and perpetrators.
Through Lanthimos’ displacement of moral judgment, we’re forced to look at the world differently. Rather than pass moral evaluation upon the Murphys or Martin, screenwriters Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou utilize their major players as pawns in a game that exists on a familiar chessboard. America’s prosperity is (and has been) built upon endless lives taken without a second thought. Progress is forever tallied but those lives are never acknowledged and atonement is rarely paid. This is what stellar storytelling is all about - coercing us to empathize with those different from us, and taking on a macroscopic view of our world and a microscopic view of ourselves in the process.