If you’ve watched Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), you may well have walked away baffled. I know I did. But in a good way. The film is intriguing enough that it draws you in, makes you think—even if it’s only to ask: “What the hell was that all about?”
The plot follows successful cardiologist Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), who has befriended the son of a patient who died on his operating table. Martin (Barry Keoghan) seems content at first just to meet Steven for coffee and desultory conversation, but it soon transpires that his relationship with the man who operated on his father is more complicated: he wants, as he says, “an eye for an eye.” He wants Steven to sacrifice one of his family members—his wife Anne (Nicole Kidman), daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) or son Bob (Sunny Suljic)—to balance the family member Martin thinks Steven took from him. The characters all speak in monotones and reveal very little of their underlying thought or emotion: the style is detached, and environments, houses, hospitals, cities, fill the frame, representing the attenuation of human motivation. It’s hard to know, in short, why characters do what they do.
In an effort to illuminate Lanthimos’s film, here are three films with which its meaning seems to me interwoven. Thinking through each of these films to Killing of a Sacred Deer sheds light on both.
“The Box,” directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, from XX (2017)
From the anthology showcasing women directors, XX, Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box” is based on the short story by Jack Ketchum. In this film, which I review here, a boy looks into a box held by a stranger on a train and from that moment on, he stops eating. His choice is contagious and soon his sister and then his father follow suit.
In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, first Steven’s son and then his daughter lose all feeling in their legs and then, in a striking parallel to “The Box,” they stop eating. Both films feature several angry dinner table scenes along with efforts to force food on the children. Also in both films, numerous doctors are consulted as to the cause of the mysterious condition.
In the end, though, the inability to eat and the atrophy that strikes Kim and Bob in Killing is at bottom just as inexplicable as the infamously unexplained wasting away of the characters in “The Box.” As a surgeon, Steven searches for a rational explanation, but he cannot find one. Perhaps in both films, then, this inexplicable wasting away is a commentary on the unknowability and randomness of life and death, despite all our efforts to control both (and Steven is nothing if not controlling). Both films, too, share a cold and sterile mise-en-scène, and I think the inexplicable wasting away is also a kind of commentary on the death-in-life of the characters, who all seem lifeless even before they start wasting away.
Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 2007)
There is a scene late in Killing when Steven stands in the center of a room with a shotgun and his wife and two children are bound in chairs around him with pillow cases over their heads. This scene is highly reminiscent of a similar scene in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games—the later, American, version starring Naomi Watts (of whom Nicole Kidman’s character in Killing frequently reminded me). Both scenes involve parents forced to make unbearable choices: who among their family members lives and who suffers and dies?
It’s not just the central scenario that’s similar, though. Killing is like Funny Games in its pointed artificiality. Everything about the characters in both films seems staged, and the point of both directors seems to be to point out the theatricality of lived existence, along with the relative meaninglessness and randomness of existence.
Also, in both films, a family lets in strangers—rootless young men—who exert an unbearable chaotic and nihilistic pressure on that family. Both films suggest that the veneer of politeness and “niceness” of the middle-class family is at the same time a charade and very dangerous.
Force Majeure (Ruben Őstlund, 2014)
Force Majeure also centers on family—a common denominator in all four films here, which seem to take aim at the illusion of the “perfect” wealthy, white, middle-class nuclear family.
In Force Majeure a husband, wife, and two children go to stay at a luxury resort in the French Alps. When they’re eating lunch one day (again, tensions seem to rise around food), an avalanche heads straight for the terrace (or so it seems). Instinctually, the father runs off, leaving his wife and two children to fend for themselves. The film deals with the inevitably painful aftermath of this abandonment, and what it reveals about the family.
Force Majeure combines the sterile mise-en-scène of Killing with its interest in exploring how the smallest and most random acts can shatter a family, a structure evidently already under severe strain. Like Killing, too, Force Majeure seems especially interested in exploring masculinity—the expectations placed on men and the things of which they are actually capable.
And Force Majeure, like Killing, is a beautiful film, in a cold sort of way. Both Őstlund and Lanthimos fill their frames with stark and overwhelming built and natural landscapes, intensifying the detachment, inertness, and powerlessness of their characters.
I’d love to hear about other films that are good watched in relation to The Killing of the Sacred Deer . . .