Saturday, December 2, 2017
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, and starring Colin Farrell as Steven Murphy, Nicole Kidman as Anna Murphy, and Barry Keoghan as Martin.
Do we recall the Greek myth of Iphigenia and the Sacred Deer?
Late in the film we learn that Dr. Steven Murphy’s daughter has written a paper about the Greek character of Iphigenia. This is an important detail, since it echoes the plot of this film: In variants of the Greek myth, by Aeschylus and Euripedes, Agamemnon accidentally kills a deer in the sacred grove of the goddess Artemis; for which he is ordered in atonement to kill his daughter, Iphigenia.
Indeed, Dr. Murphy is faced with a similar dilemma. He is an affluent heart surgeon with a beautiful wife and son and daughter. Lately, he is the target of a relationship with creepy young Martin, a 16-year old whose father had died under Murphy’s knife during an operation. Martin’s attentions, at first affectionate, soon turn dark when he confronts Murphy with an ultimatum: He charges Steven with the murder of his father; and now he, Steven, must kill a member of his own family as an act of atonement. If he fails to do this, his family will suffer from strange maladies—starvation, paralysis, bleeding from the eyes—until they die
Indeed, both children are afflicted and hospitalized. A battery of tests yield no diagnosis. They come home and are confined to their beds, under the care of their parents. Alarmed by their deterioration, Steven kidnaps Martin, ties him up in the basement, and tortures him against the release of his curse (if that is what it is). Anna, meanwhile, learns that her husband had indeed been responsible for the death of Martin’s father: He had been drunk during the operation and the patient had died. Increasingly distraught, Steven threatens to shoot Martin; but the boy only calmly repeats his charge that it is Steven who is the murderer. If Martin dies, Steven will be guilty of the death of his entire family. The choice as to which family member must die is Steven’s. He gathers them all in the basement, places bandages over their mouths, puts hoods over their heads, and stands in the middle of the room, rifle in hand. Placing a hood over his own head, he circles dizzily round and round, firing three times until he blindly makes a hit. It’s the boy, slumped lifeless in his chair.
The film ends with Steven and his wife and daughter sitting at a café table. A few feet away at the counter sits Martin, his wounds healed. After a few moments of silence, Steven and wife and daughter (who now can walk) leave the room.
At first, the tone of the story is very quiet, the pacing deliberate, the dialogue clipped and in a monotone. As the action unfolds and an underlying tension escalates, a strange selection of musical cues embellish the slow-burning action—Schubert’s Stabat Mater, Bach’s St. John Mass, and works by Ligeti and Gubaidulina. The grim deterioration of the children matches the growing disfunction of the Murphy marriage. It makes for gut-wrenching, even excruciating viewing as Steven works out his frustrations in his torture of Martin and moments of violence against his own children.
Notwithstanding all that however, I must admit that somewhere along the way an absurdist quality creeps into the film’s general tone. How easily, inevitably, I think, its unrelenting seriousness verges on self-parody. We are trapped in our bewilderment, unable to decide which is which—not unlike Steven’s own tortuous inability to make his deadly choice.