Colin Farrell becomes a troublingly perfect Agamemnon in this new film by Yorgos Lanthimos. The film pushes reality so far and with such patient, systematic determination that it reveals truths that we all somehow know but no longer wish to acknowledge.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer opens grandly. An extended close-up of open-heart surgery, performed to the grave and moving music of one of Schubert’s Stabat Maters. Still looking? Keep looking now and you might still be able to keep on looking later on. The music and sound design will help keep you there, will seduce and hypnotise you.
Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a highly authoritative surgeon, a man of few words and even fewer facial expressions. His emotional range is at best one that goes from neutral, to dark, to closed in. He is husband to Anna (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist. They have two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) a girl approaching the fullness of her teenage years, and Bob (Sunny Suljic), a boy with lustrous hair, who straddles the edge between childhood and teenage-hood.
It is a family where no visible sign of affection is expressed, and where each has a pre-determined role. Harsh words are said when one doesn’t comply. Bob sometimes forgets to water the voluminous plants edging the family mansion. This lapse is met with cold remonstrations.
Sometimes, Steven meets with a young man, Martin (Barry Keoghan), who seems to be seventeen or so. His hair and clothes resemble those of wholesome teenage heroes in 1950s pictures – jeans and stripy t-shirts and neat haircut. But his own inexpressive manners are troubling in a more disconcerting way than Stephen’s. There is a sense that a trap is being set, and that Steven cannot help but move towards it. The trap’s teeth snap shut when Steven meets Martin’s mother (Alicia Silverstone), in an encounter both dark and absurdly funny.
The meetings seem to be secret, for a while, until Steven eventually offers to take Martin home, to meet his family. The unease grows. What happens next becomes increasingly disturbing, increasingly at odds from the real world. The film progresses inexorably into some kind of horror. It is beautiful and mesmerising, horrible, and tragic; but also, somehow, ironic. There is an appalled chuckle underlying it all.
The irony is no surprise. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a near faithful rendition, and an astounding riff, on one of the great Greek tragedies, Iphigenie in Aulis. Its original author, the playwright Euripides (~480-~406 BC), is known for using tragic irony. Lanthimos also deploys this in the film, to great effect – a dark, terrible irony, which seems at the same time deeply satisfying. Everything falls into place, order will be restored, thanks to an awful sacrifice.
There are many different versions of Iphigenie’s story. The bare bones are that King Agamemnon, who is to lead the Greeks in war against Troy, has offended the goddess Artemis – some say he has killed a sacred deer. If he is to sail to Troy, then he must appease Artemis, by offering her an equivalent sacrifice: the life of his daughter Iphigenie. Iphigenie and her mother Clytemnestra are misled into believing that they are on the way to the altar so Iphigenie will marry Achilles.
In some versions, she is spared at the last minute by Artemis, who replaces her with a … deer. In other versions, she is spared and a replacement child, Eryphyle, is killed instead. In yet other versions, she is killed.
There is a quietly striking moment, when Steven Murphy sits back in a chair, and contemplates the horror he is compelled to perpetrate. In that moment, Colin Farrell is King Agamemnon; the position of his head, his slightly paunchy slump shaping his dark beard into a replica of mythological images of the King.
The performances by all five leads are remarkably powerful and convincing, despite the surreal, absurd context. They navigate from normality to savagery in a deadpan way which remains utterly convincing. When Martin says something terrible to Steven, something which might initially be understood as a threat, but is in fact a simple announcement of an unavoidable curse, he says so in his customary emotionally detached way. He is merely announcing a law of nature, that a wrong must, of course, be righted. An eye for an eye in that world is an undisputable norm.
The acting style which predominates is reminiscent of performances in Jean Cocteau’s own interpretations of the Greek tragedies, for example in his Orpheus. Restrained diction and cadence, minimal facial expressions…
This is faithful to what is thought to have been practiced in Ancient Greek theatre, a declamatory tone. The deadpan expressions in the film replicate the masks actors from Antiquity would have worn. The idea is that it is for the spectator to emote, not for the protagonist. The latter would otherwise crowd out the former.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer reveals that when pushed to the limit, a modern-day family is not too different from the archaic conception of family relations in ancient Greece. Wives and children are still chattels, fathers are the patriarchs who despite fatherly affection will weigh, and dispose of, their children’s lives if outside forces demand it. Under pressure, family members will bargain for their existence to the detriment of their loved ones; morality crumbles, to be replaced with harsh expediency.
Individual survival is all. If Steven Murphy had, as the story begins, the outward appearance of an authoritative surgeon, of a respectable man – albeit with a tendency to dominate his family – by the end of the story, it is understood that he has, effectively, owned his family all along – as chattel. And by the end of this morality tale, it is evident that he is, morally, the very weakest among them.
In all this, there is a philosophical continuity with The Lobster, Lanthimos’s previous collaboration with writer Efthymis Filippou and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, where harsh social structures, and morality turned on its head, inevitably diminish personhood.
The choice of music and the sound design in this film are too important, and too good, not to be given a special mention. The generous use of choral music also replicates aspects of ancient Greek theatre, where a chorus would punctuate the progress of the narrative.
The soundtrack includes several stunning works by composer Sofia Gubaidulina, lauded as having composed some of the most beautiful religious music of recent times, and several pieces by avant-garde composer György Ligeti. The film opens with religious music by Schubert, and closes with Bach. All these pieces are an essential part of the film, as is Johnnie Burn’s (known for his work on The Lobster, Under the Skin…) exquisite, powerful, affecting sound design.
On a first viewing, while the film overall is so powerful that the detail of the sound design might slip out of conscious memory, take the opportunity to listen carefully to the track on the end credits, composed by Johnnie Burn, and called Hecatone. Then work back through the film in your memory – it is all there, and it is remarkable.
The film provides a powerful emotional and sensory load – one can’t help but emerge from the cinema in an altered state – and with an altered understanding of what it is that might bind us to others.
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Writers: Efthymis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos
Cinematographer: Thimios Bakatakis
Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic
Originally published on myfilmclub.co.uk, November 2017