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Decoding 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer,' the Craziest Tragedy of 2017

Yorgos Lanthimos's latest squirm-fest carries some surprising artistic allusions.

Emerson Rosenthal

Jima, courtesy of A24

No one does tragedy quite like the Greeks, so it’s fitting that the year’s most effective effort comes from Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster). The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his fifth and latest film, eschews a literal retelling of its source material, Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis, in favor of a dense chamber drama that exposes the heart of body horror—literally—and revitalizes the power of myths for a modern audience.

In Poetics, Aristotle defined tragedy as, “An imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude…through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” And if there’s one thing that unites each of Lanthimos’s films, it’s the classical tragic story arc: things get worse for characters in already-bad situations, then they get worse still. This is built into The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a film about what happens when you have to face a punishment that you don’t want to admit you’ve earned.

Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is a heart surgeon who, by his own fault, has accidentally killed a patient. Years later, he’s visited by Martin (Barry Keoghan) the son of the deceased, who dishes out the doctor’s punishment: either he kill his daughter (Raffey Cassidy), son (Sunny Suljic), or wife (Nicole Kidman), or all three will lose the ability to walk, stop eating, start bleeding out of their eyes, and stop living—in that order. It’s chilling in its directness: less a character study than the ballad of a coward who has to face consequences.

This is the essence of the myth from which The Killing of a Sacred Deer takes its name, Iphigenia in Aulis. Dating back to 405 BCE, Agamemnon and his men are stranded on an island because the goddess of the hunt, Artemis, has suspended the winds they require to set sail for Troy. If the war effort is to continue—and it must—he has to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, because he was previously responsible for the death of a sacred deer belonging to the goddess.

The brunt of the play sees Agamemnon struggling with the decision to either kill his daughter, or have his family be killed by his own restless soldiers. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a de facto reimagining of Iphigenia, in all its its futility and absence of a moral checkpoint.

If further meaning can be distilled from The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it comes from the tension generated when forces of mobility come into conflict with forces of immobility. Inverting the way that American democracy can be interpreted through the Athenian city-state, The Killing of a Sacred Deer can be read using a uniquely American work of art as its roadmap. First exhibited in 1948, Christina’s World is the most famous work by painter Andrew Wyeth; It depicts Anna Christina Olson, a friend of the painter who was afflicted with an undiagnosed degenerative neuromuscular disease, reduced to crawling and dragging her lower body by her upper half.

Of his choice in subjects, Wyeth said, “If in some small way I have been able in paint to make the viewer sense that her world may be limited physically but by no means spiritually, then I have achieved what I set out do.” But Christina’s body is actually freed from the painting by its own design: the arms belong to Olson, but the torso was actually based on that of the artist’s wife, who was able to sit as a model for long periods of time. The effect is that the viewer is unable to tell whether this chimera-Christina is crawling towards or revolting away from the farmhouse in the painting’s background. The core of its tension, a body that can move but is unable to, colliding with a body that is unable to move but somehow still can, finds its modern expression in unforgiving shots of Steven’s kids dragging their bodies about their family home to bargain for their lives with a father who, no matter what, will not be able to save them.

People hate Christina’s World—and Wyeth’s oeuvre—for its literalness, sentimentalism, and abject lack of metaphor, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer is guaranteed to make such critics squirm in their seats. But love it or revile it, it’s undoubtedly one of the decade’s opaquest films. That an ancient myth can be used to root both a family drama and an explosive exposition of body horror in the modern American experience signifies a director entering the master-stage of his craft. Unruly tensions abound across multiple levels, simple and complex, and it just might be that unique film that has no answers; but, as with the catharsis that comes at the end of great tragedy, if viewers can prepare themselves for a singularly excruciating time at the theater, they’ll carry with them a lightness heading back out into the street.