I don’t know if what is happening is fair, but it’s the closest thing to justice I can think of. – Martin
In the opening scene of The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), it’s no coincidence we hear an excerpt from the first movement of Franz Schubert’s Stabat Mater in F Minor – performed by Michael Corboz. It’s a piece that evokes the agony of Mary as her heart bleeds for Jesus hanging on the cross while his own heart bleeds on behalf of humanity.
As the piece unfolds we witness an extreme close-up of an exposed human heart, alive, pulsing, and vulnerable, a heart in the care of renowned cardiothoracic surgeon, Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) who has the responsibility of life and death resting in his hands. In the next scene, we see him, after the operation, remove his bloodied, surgical gloves and gown in a throw-away gesture that symbolically distances him from the guilt that haunts him.
Yorgos Lanthimos’s morally arresting film is, among other things, a meditation on sin, guilt, and the demand for justice, the stark kind of justice that demands a balancing of the books, an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-tooth. The three-fold message here is clear: 1) Steven Murphy (and by extension all humanity) is guilty; 2) guilt and the wrong-doing associated with it, demand payment; and, 3) sooner or later the gods will come to collect in order to balance the scales of justice. And when the gods come calling on Steven Murphy, he is shown no mercy.
But to fully appreciate Lanthimos’s substantial efforts here, it’s important to understand a little context. This includes not only the myth of Agamemnon and Iphigenia (by Euripides), but the central role that the gods played in ancient Greek culture as both the personification and instruments of fate in meting out cosmic justice, understood as the fulfillment of universal law. In other words, for the ancient Greeks, justice is achieved when the strict conditions of the law are met. Period.
In brief, the myth involves the killing of a sacred deer by either Agamemnon or one of his soldiers. Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, is angered by this, takes offense, and by conjuring a contrary wind, locks Agamemnon’s warships in the harbour at Aulis, thus preventing the fleet from sailing to Troy. The priest Calchas decrees that in order for the winds to abate so the ships can set sail, Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, which, in the end, he dutifully does. In this way, the law is upheld, Artemis’s anger is appeased, and justice is served. This is the story in short, the bare bones of which help provide a window into the film.
As I see it, the main threads that connect the myth to the film are tied to the ancient Greek notion of the law and its inextricable linkage to, even conflation with cosmic justice in a way that makes the latter indistinguishable from the former. It’s important to remember that the ancient Greek worldview was dominated by the gods who were themselves the minions of fate. As I’ve alluded, justice is achieved when the conditions of the law are satisfied; and those conditions are rooted in an economy of equal exchange dictated by fate.
Lanthimos’s film then is a place where ancient and modern sensibilities collide in an allegory about a guilt laden man who is forced by the hand of fate to make an unspeakable choice between two impossible alternatives. While the film itself is straightforward enough in its own way, the director’s language and logic is, in the tradition of Buñuel and Polanski, more allegorical and symbolic than rational or linear. Add to that the all-encompassing wide-angle lens of cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis, not to mention his high/low tracking shots, and the viewer, along with the protagonist, are pulled into a vortex of existential guilt and dread of no return.
Fundamentally, the film involves the enigmatic relationship between Steven Murphy and a teenage boy named Martin – brilliantly played by Barry Keoghan. We see them meet in various public spaces where light conversation takes place and gifts are exchanged. But there’s a low-lying, stilting sort of awkwardness to it all that carries with it an overwhelming sense of dread. In fact, that dread hangs heavy around the neck of the film, most notably in the monotone conversations that are devoid of emotional verve or vitality.
Eventually, we learn that Martin’s father died an untimely death on Steven’s operating table. And when we further discover that the good doctor had been drinking before the operation, Steven and Martin’s relationship takes on a deeper, more twisted shape that exposes Steven’s condescending kindness to the boy as a heartless and manipulative attempt to assuage, or better, expurgate his guilt and somehow make things right. But when Steven invites him into his home to meet his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two children Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), Martin is slowly revealed to be a malevolent messenger of the gods sent by fate on behalf of cosmic justice.
By all surface accounts, Steven has all his ducks in a row. His life is calibrated, contained, and very clean. Even his sex life is sterile and perfunctory to the point of perversity. He’s competent, good looking, wealthy, and wants for nothing. But when Martin asserts his presence and power, Steven’s life is shown to be a fragile facade designed to shield himself from the pain of who he is, the guilt and shame of what he’s done, and the fear of what lies beyond his control.
At a pivotal point in the film, Martin makes things clear to Steven, and says: “That critical moment we both knew would come someday” is here. “The time is now.” Martin then proceeds to tell him that in order to balance the scales of justice and make things right, Steven must choose a family member and kill them. If he refuses, all of them will die a horrible and painful death – first paralysis, then loss of appetite, bleeding through the eyes, and finally death. But when he delays making a choice and paralysis hits young Bob, Steven is convinced there’s a medical explanation. And when he’s finally told by the best doctors in the country there’s no rational explanation for the boy’s condition, and that nothing can be done, Steven spirals into an existential abyss where he is forced by the hand of fate to do the unspeakable.
If Lanthimos’s depiction of cosmic justice is cold comfort, it’s painfully honest about the heartless nature of the law when it dons the robe of justice. By virtue of its finite, all too human character, however, the law as justice does not and cannot provide hope of healing and the catharsis that comes through forgiveness. This is illustrated in a heart-rending way when Steven is brought low before the feet of fate, a place where he is forced to see his own guilt and feel its full weight. Sadly, however, his tears of contrition and confession find no release, for where there is no forgiveness there is neither catharsis nor the possibility of healing and transformation that come from it. And without forgiveness, guilt, shame, and fear, remain.
It’s no accident then that Lanthimos opens his film with a snippet from Schubert’s Stabat Mater. Far from it. Theologically speaking, when one considers that the crucifixion of Christ dealt a death blow to the law, ushering in as it did an economy of grace and forgiveness, Lanthimos’s film stands as a profound yet subtle critique of any system, legal, political, or religious, that wields a bloody sword in the name of justice.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is not an easy film, and certainly not for the faint of heart. But anything worthwhile is worth the struggle. And KSD is well worth it.