Not every ailment can be solved through medicine, as Greek Weird Wave director Yorgos Lanthimos makes clear in his latest venture into the absurd and biblical, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Yorgos’s cinematic world is shrouded in a veil of social repression, in which families exchange only the most courteously awkward sentiments, and occasional bursts of genuine emotion manifest in strained demonstrations of comical impotence. This experiment in tragicomedy points to societal prejudices and inconsistencies that would otherwise pass us by unnoticed.
The opening shot presents us with a perfect metaphor for the film’s undertaking: a bloody, pulsing heart, estranged in a sea of blue sanitizing fabric, being operated upon by a series of gloved and ghostly hands. The most vulnerable aspect of our condition is laid bare for the purpose of correcting it, though modern technologies don’t always do the trick. Such is apparent in the case of Martin, a middle-school boy who develops a relationship with the heart-surgeon who killed his father. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is none other than this bearded and stuffy individual, emblematic of the upper-class society of doctors and lawyers who’ve suffered their fair share’s worth of torture in horror films of earlier eras. He must protect his wife and two children (a 10-year old boy, Bob, and teenage daughter, Kim, who proudly proclaims she just “had her first period”) from the cosmic evil that is Martin, who seeks to fix the imbalance of karma Steven’s operating accident had offset.
Yorgos real intention is to illuminate the plastic and superficial nature of modern human behavior. General formalities and passive conversation-starters are expanded into worlds of their own value, rendering all social bonds and attachments in effect meaningless. Gift-giving is a primary example—when at the film’s beginning Steven buys a watch for Martin, and the useless technicalities of the object are granted a significance at once saddening and humorous. Armpit hair, lemonade, and even children are reduced to commodities worshipped for their mere ability to create bridges between people. An atmosphere of depressive unease permeates this hyper-formalistic universe stripped of all moral platitudes. Indeed, if the Murphy family is missing some sort of spiritual fervor that might reanimate them, then Martin is, ironically, the only effective medicine. He represents a sacred force that defies quantification, an impenetrable abyss of evil that actor Barry Keoghan integrates into his role perfectly. While their relationship has yet to go sour, Steven does a heart-check on Martin and tells the boy he’s “perfectly healthy,” contradicting the obvious unease between them. Doctors, the ultimate programmers of humankind’s condition, cannot account for this interior realm of consciousness that’s been entirely forgotten.
For this transgression, Martin punishes the Murphy family using Biblical levels of torment. An orchestral brass and string section accentuates Martin’s godliness, coating the urban environment in a gloss of epic tragedy. His first order of divine intervention is to paralyze Bob below the waist. The boy’s injury reminds us of the various instances that Steven goes strolling through the hospital, offices breezing past him as he floats motionlessly in frame. Our latent impressions of a moral immobility become a physical circumstance impressed upon Steven’s children. But this general sense of suffering soon enough devolves into an eye-for-eye revenge story, providing sharp contrast to the deadpan lifelessness of their everyday interactions. Two worlds struggle against each other, leaving us in the uneasy position between hysterics and evil. Yorgos occasionally provides a glimmer of transcendent beauty unaffected by either side of the conflict—when Kim sings Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” under a willow-tree at sunset, or when she lets loose a tear while riding a motorcycle and the night-breeze flows past her in slow motion. Time and movement become freed of their industrial restraints, and the human shows through, if only for a moment.
Though Yorgos’s world is meant to resemble a poorly manufactured copy of the real one, a chunk of the narrative still feels artificially inserted for the case of narrative progression (take the sudden absence of Matthew, or Martin’s mother). Compared to Yorgos’ critically acclaimed debut, Dogtooth, which refuses to sacrifice a morsel of its underlying vulnerabilities, points of Sacred Deer lack the emotional core which the repressive atmosphere is supposedly circumventing. Without a bridge between the absurd and the reality of which it’s a parody, the narrative’s kernel of despair at times loses context and purpose. Yorgos teeters a thin line between the nonsensical and the horrifying, the mundane and the beautiful, but comes to the other side with a very much relevant critique of human passivity. One leaves the theatre feeling a little ridiculous for the everyday behaviors we find so normal—and, even worse, for envying the Murphy’s toe-dip into the tragic.
Featured Image by A24 Films