A Greek Tragedy

Dissecting Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer

A24 Conversations
words by Empire Taste

In A24 Conversations, EIC Alex Wen and Editor Ashish Valentine sit down to chat about a film from the leading independent distributor’s filmography. We kicked things off with “Enemy” last time and we’re back with another surreal and eerie tale, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”. 

Alex: We just watched The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the latest surreal thriller from the mind of Yorgos Lanthimos, did you like it?

Ashish: Yeah, overall I did. It was a very different experience for me than the other two movies of his that I’ve seen: Dogtooth and The Lobster.

Alex: In what way?

Ashish: All three are definitely recognizable as his, absurd worlds populated by seemingly unaware characters and intentionally artificial dialogue, but this movie was much more emotionally tense the whole way through. Whereas I felt Dogtooth was quite distant apart from key moments, and The Lobster was largely comical until a certain point. There are disturbing elements to all three but this one is the only one that really made me uncomfortable—right from the first shot of the beating heart during surgery. What did you think?

Alex: Yorgos Lanthimos definitely has a recognizable style. Other than this, I’ve only seen The Lobster. Sacred Deer is very eerie and atmospheric, and the characters and the dialogue does just make it weirder. Like at times, it forces the viewer to acknowledge that this is a film, and not reality. It’s like the uncanny valley, but Lanthimos just relishes being in that space rather than avoid it because he wants to use this uncanniness as an area to critique reality.

Ashish: Definitely, he’s interested in constantly forcing the audience to be aware of the performed nature of the characters. I think he is really inspired by Brecht in that regard. He works in a really similar area of deliberately foregrounding rather than avoiding the issue of performance in cinema, and in deliberately exaggerating existing social tensions.

Alex: Were there any moments that really stuck out? I think that spaghetti eating scene was really something. It’s so messy and internal organ-like, especially when contrasted with the clinical whites of the film. That was the moment when Martin felt the most evil.

Ashish: There is this deliberate visual linking of surgery and butchery, which I think always puts us in the mind of the death on the operating table that Steven was responsible for. Definitely, even more so than his taunts when he was tied up in the basement. The spaghetti scene, along with the cutting of the fish at Steven’s friend’s house, especially in the latter scene where the anaesthesiologist’s wife recommends he use a sharper knife never lets us forget that linkage with the operating table. And with this Greek tragedy sense of the permanence of death and the necessity of vengeance. This article was really helpful in pointing out some of the references the movie makes. We have watched two very reference-laden movies in a row.

Alex: We have, watching films that aren’t very concerned with realism and I wonder if it always works here. It did bother me the way that the wife and the kids acted around Steven. Like, why would Anna not love her children more?

Ashish: Yes, the question of Anna sacrificing herself for the kids’ sake never actually came up directly.

Alex: Even if her self-interest is vital to the themes.

Ashish: Except when she explicitly tried to rule it out. Do you think that’s Lanthimos being cynical?

Alex: I do. There’s definitely this thread about how people are only out for their self-interest.

Ashish: I agree. I think especially early on in the movie.

Alex: It’s not a coincidence that the most “innocent”, Bob, is the one that gets the short end of the stick. And I’m not sure Lanthimos effectively makes that point. Throughout I just kept looking at these characters and feel like they would definitely be more compassionate or giving or whatnot
and I think that detracts from the central tension of martin’s demands for justice.

Ashish: I see what you mean. For me it’s hard to explicitly critique a Lanthimos movie. They are so idiosyncratic that for me they always succeed as Yorgos Lanthimos movies, though I did feel that this one was somehow lacking in the depth of the other two. It felt the most direct and I think that made it easier for the flaws in the characters to be detectable.

Alex: I can see that, it’s just some of the cynicism can feel hollow at some point and it seems to lack the levity of The Lobster. Although there were little moments of humor or absurdism that works pretty well, like Steven throwing Bob off his wheelchair to make him walk.

Ashish: Sure, how in control did you think Martin was? Do you think he was actively forcing the “curse” or was he a victim himself to fate.

Alex: I don’t think I thought much about that since it didn’t seem to matter. Martin wasn’t really a person, he was just an avatar to enact this curse.

Ashish: It’s true. We at least got to see the other characters crumble and demonstrate their humanity
whereas Martin is quite constant the whole way through. Though there was this sense to me that he was a stand-in for this overall tragic force.

Alex: He was God, or the devil. Can we talk about one of the last scenes, the one where Steven blindfolds his family and spins around to kill someone by random.

Ashish: Yes, I thought at the beginning of the scene he had chosen someone and was calling his wife down to witness. What are your thoughts?

Alex: It’s so absurd and self-serious and yet it works. And that’s mostly thanks to the one and the half hour hours of buildup. I feel like Lanthimos builds up to moments like these where we are fully invested in the mechanics of his game and nothing else. We are in Lanthimos’ world.

Ashish: Totally, the moment with the gun is so similar to the one in The Lobster where (the same actor) is standing in front of the mirror with the blade and because we have been exposed to the world’s absurd rules so effectively we totally empathize with him even though he’s about do do something absurd, blinding himself with a knife or putting a bullet in his own son. Also bigger picture, what do you think the movie is trying to say. Dogtooth and The Lobster both seemed like allegories for social phenomena, protective parenting and relationships. But I am having a harder time getting a read on the overall social phenomenon Sacred Deer is getting at, besides the violence of parenthood and the overall theme of revenge.

Alex: I think there is some butterfly effect stuff going on here or at least this concept that as a society, we are in this together. We are not completely guilty or innocent to things, we are part of this larger web. Anna, Kim and Bob did not make that fatal mistake during the surgery, but surely they benefited from Steven’s continued success as a surgeon.

Ashish: Totally, before I thought Greek tragedy, I felt a strong Old Testament vibe. Like the part where God makes Abraham sacrifice his son Isiah just to prove his loyalty to him, only in that case I believe the requirement is lifted at the last minute, but the classic idea of eye for an eye.

Alex: It’s awfully fatalistic here right. When the film starts, it’s already too late. We are doomed because we are human or at least because we have erred as humans do.

Ashish: I think another tension that is explored through exaggeration is the violence inherent in parenthood, particularly in the father-son relationship, the different reactions that Steven has towards his son versus his daughter suffering the same ailment, and how somehow throughout the whole movie his son’s death seems inevitable. We know it’s him who will be chosen, and I think it’s important that he dies before puberty. Martin’s adolescence is marked in the beginning by Steven giving him a watch, he’s entering manhood, but that entrance is denied to Bob. Puberty is really emphasized in the film because it even starts with this repeated mention of Kim getting her first period.

Alex: That’s a good observation, I guess adulthood comes with the baggage of agency. Bob and his innocence means he stood no chance.

Ashish: Yes, Kim has just enough knowledge to needle her mom and attempt to manipulate her dad.

Alex: The sickness that is our society will infect him or kill him and perhaps that’s why Kim attached herself to Martin, sensing his manhood, because otherwise he’s not much of a catch.

Ashish: It’s true, he has a weird relationship to puberty, because while he is an adolescent his behavior is very adultlike: smoking, driving a motorcycle, sexualizing his mother. It seems like this adultlike, masculine energy draws Kim to him, even at the end of the movie when she knows what he’s done and still can’t help being attracted to him. I think part of the commentary coming out of Bob’s death is the death of innocence from transitioning from a child to an adolescent. Like Bob obviously dies in the movie but I think it stands in for something that is sacrificed without our realizing it, perhaps even killed by the parents in an act or structure they see as necessary.

Alex: Is it not humanity? Like Bob is the only one that seems to act rationally.

Ashish: I think he is the only open one. From the start, the conversations and interactions between characters are phrased so it’s clear they are always indulging each other.

Alex: He is the only one that can act human, and so for that, he dies. Perhaps that’s the contradiction
of society, where we are all out for self-interest but need to function as a community.

Ashish: Even sex in the movie is always one sided, there is never a union, it’s always devoid of mutual pleasure. It’s Hobbes’s Leviathan but set within the nuclear family in that sense.

Alex: You can argue in our current iteration of society or community, they are designed for self-interested people to succeed and progress.

Ashish: I didn’t really notice anything about Bob’s character that marks him as selfless or innocent as opposed to the other characters, but he doesn’t have the skill that they do. His deceptions are artless
and it’s obvious what he wants. I think that innocence motivates Steven to hurt him, Steven tends to presuppose guilt where there is none to be found where Bob is concerned. He instantly assumes he’s pretending, refusing food out of some emotional reason, overreacting. Their relationship is the most violent from the beginning.

Alex: How much of the violence is the family on itself versus how much is from Martin?

Ashish: I think they are very linked, ultimately there is this chain that is inescapable between the initial killing on the operating table, the “cursing” of the family, and the violence within it—like the cycles from Oedipus Rex to Antigone, there is always a score to be settled.

Alex: The circle of life.