Throughout his career, Yorgos Lanthimos has produced a series of excoriating satires of nuclear family, conservative coupledom and reproductive futurity, but none of them have been quite so bleak or brutal as The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his second effort with an English cast. Set in a deracinated and deterretorialised metropolis that appears to exist halfway between Ireland and the United States, it revolves around a cardiologist, Steve Murphy (Colin Farrell), his wife Anna, an opthamologist (Nicole Kidman) and their children Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). Their family life takes a dramatic turn for the worst with the arrival of Martin (Barry Keogh), whose father (his mother is played by Alicia Silverstone) died during a surgical procedure administered by Steve roughly ten years before the narrative begins. We don’t find that out for some time, however, with Martin initially just showing up in spaces that Steve occupies – usually hospital spaces – and then spending time with him, in an emergent relationship that neither party quite seems to know how to define or contextualise. Gradually, however, it becomes clear that Martin blames Steve for his father’s death, and that he requires Steve to sacrifice a member of his own family in exchange. If Steve doesn’t do this, Martin promises, he will visit a curse upon the Murphy family, and sure enough the children, and then the parents, undergo a series of symptoms predicted by Martin – paralysis, loss of appetite, bleeding from the eyes – until Steve and Anna make a decision to kill one of their children randomly to protect the other.
As with so many films about the nuclear family, then, the conjunction of an older man and a younger man – and the unspeakable interpersonal possibilities that it entails – becomes the site from which the entire suburban apparatus is dismantled and inverted. For the most part, it’s unclear whether Martin is trying to avenge his father, or simply reinstate Steve as a father-figure, which is perhaps why it feels as if the sacrifice that he demands is both being made by and for the benefit of Martin. As might be expected, that imbues the film with a profound and estranging coldness, with Lanthimos anaesthetizing and narcotizing his mise-en-scenes, and handling his camera wih such remoteness that it feels utterly discorrelated from and indifferent to the human bodies in its purview. When the camera does sync up with the human body – or when the human body does sync up with the camera – it does so in an entirely accidental, contingent and incidental manner, zooming and panning through space as a matter of course rather than in response to anything specific unfolding before it. In that sense, the camera, like Martin, only has one steady, unshakeable trajectory – a trajectory that might be momentarily disrupted by the film, but that always resumes its path and recapitulates its inherent and inhuman momentum, like a physical law or a fact of the universe that remains fundamentally unchanged by the contingencies and precarities of the human drama crossing its path. Not unlike the entity in It Follows, this is a camera that is always, at some level, riding the same, steady, inexorable momentum, leaching the film of any semblance linear temporality, and imbuing every plot twist with a claustrophobic inevitability, to create a conclusion that gradually comes into focus rather than a plot per se.
So clinical and impersonal is this camera’s address that it leaves all human bodies prone and prostrate in its wake, denuding and flattening all dialogue and interpersonal exchange, and seeming to produce Martin’s “symptoms” – paralysis, lack of affect, bleeding from the eyes – by virtue of its sheer presence. Insofar as it has any affiliations, it gravitates towards other recording devices, and especially medical recording devices, which is perhaps why it feels like something of a medical intervention in Lanthimos’ mise-en-scenes itself, probing and perusing every human body at a purely physiological and processual level. For that reason, even the most sacrosanct and suburban of bourgeois spaces feel continuous with and continguous to the barren sterility of the hospital, whose looming sightlines and panoptic glaciality is the natural venue – or the unnatural venue – for Lanthimos’ visual scheme. Within that shared space, bodies are repeatedly divested of their corporeality, as surgical procedure and suburban experience are fused into a remote alterity in which the spectacles of menstruation, flossing and underarm are utterly equivalent to a lens with no interest or investment in the vagaries of human decorum. While the opening depiction of open-heart surgery might be quick shocking, then, its shock value is quickly subsumed into the more disturbing nakedness and coldness of the human body when the camera refuses to humanise or subjectivise it. At times, that’s a bit like watching a film shot from the perspective of a surgeon, or a scalpel, as every emotional or affective exchange is grounded in the frank, cold mechanics of physiological functionality (“I laughed so hard my ribs hurt”) and socially significant and socially invisible bodily functions are conflated and confounded.
In other words, The Killing of a Sacred Deer offers up a profoundly unaccompanied vision of the human body, culminating with the a cappella version of Ellie Goulding’s “Light it Up” – the closest we’re permitted to a soundtrack in this strange and austere space. In doing so, Lanthimos reveals the extent to which the cinematic camera conventionally communes with its human subjects – and communes with them as middle-class urban or suburban subjects – effectively naturalising the nuclear family and normative coupledom by virtue of the camera’s very presence in the first place. Here, instead, we have a profoundly and radically inhuman character in Martin, and witness in Lanthimos, both of whose austerity demands the elemental register of Greek myth to properly articulate their distance from the events and scenarios they happen to witness and record. Refusing to offer his camera as a body analogous to those it depicts, Lanthimos instead examines suburban normality from the vantage point of drone cinematography, and the experience of being rendered prone by a drone, divesting his tableaux of even the most residual tactility in the process. Normally, this feature of drone cinematography isn’t so evident, since drone footage doesn’t typically feature people shot at close-range, let alone in domestic and middle-class environments. While drone footage – and its cousin in GoPro footage – is often a sign of middle-class status, it’s rarely turned on middle class or suburban spaces themselves, and yet in that revisionary gesture lies the cold, clinical and brutally dissective aesthetic of Lanthimos’ film.
Nowhere is that clearer than in a chilling scene in which Steve, Martin and Martin’s mother sit down to watch Groundhog Day together. As Lanthimos films the film unfolding on their television, the effect is a bit like witnessing all the millions of years that Bill Murray’s character had to endure to get to the end of the film – and, beyond that, the sheer repetitive impersonality of the time loop structure that forced him to endure the film in the first place. In effect, Lanthimos devises a camera commensurate to the entire, uncut version of Groundhog Day, and the effect is quite terrifying, displacing the human drama of this family classic with a more impersonal, inhuman and indifferent sense of procedural scrutiny. Not surprisingly, that inhuman element intensifies around Steve and Martin’s rapport, with Martin’s presence – and their relationship – initially appearing to be almost unthinkable, and incapable of being processed, by the rest of the film, only to becomes its motor engine. In particular, the vast spaces of the film balloon around Steve and Martin, taking us further and further away from their relationship even as it becomes more ostensibly central, casting them adrift amidst strange zones that not only disinvest and overwhelm the human, but displace the human from the humanism of human bodies, dispersing us across an odd, object-oriented universe in which human physiology is mere one mechanic amongst many.
Within that space, the nuclear family is alternately framed as a mere mechanism for regulating life and death – an extension of the hospital – and as a ritual enforced by some profoundly impersonal and mythic agency or entity. On the one hand, that foregrounds chance and probability as narrative factors, culminating with the extraordinary scene in which Steve spins round and round until he has lost all sense of spatial orientation, before pointing his gun at one of his children to ensure that his “sacrifice” is totally random. At the same time, however, even the most probabilistic moments feel increasingly bound up in a ceremonial imperative that remains beyond the reach of the characters, but to which they are indubitably bound (“You gave me life and only you have the right to take my life away”). The result is a kind of fusion of the suburban nuclear family with the families of Greek tragedy, as the very existence, demands and obligations of the family unit – and especially Steve’s role as head of that unit – becomes synonymous with contingencies that are as apparently cruel, random and meaningless as they are mythopoetically decreed. For all the randomness of Steve’s final spin, there’s also a sense that the outcome is already decided, and that the spin itself is too ritualistic to be genuinely random, if only because Lanthimos’ camera has never been more profoundly disinterested and inhuman than at this moment.