In an affecting opening scene of Yorgos Lanthimos’ mythical new film The Killing of a Sacred Deer a heart is pumping. The actual human organ. In full public view. It is pumping. And pumping. For however many minutes too long. And the movie seems to hold its breath until a pair of blood-stained gloves is dropped into the bin.
With clean hands, Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), the cardiothoracic surgeon, walks down the hospital corridor with a colleague, talking about expensive watches. At the day’s close he goes home to an affluent neighbourhood in a mid-Western American town where he lives with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), an opthalmologist, and their teenage daughter, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and younger son, Bob (Sunny Suljic).
Life seems successful, blissful, perfect. So, for a while, one wonders about the relationship between this sure-footed doctor and a boy, Martin (Barry Keoghan), whom he keeps clandestine contact.
Suspicions of any secret sexual arrangements are quickly dispelled when Steven invites the 16-year-old to lunch with his family whom the young man goes on to charm. Then, as Martin insinuates himself more and more into the Murphy household, exploiting especially Kim’s innocent infatuation, a mysterious illness descends without warning on the children.
From Lanthimos’ choice of title, we will no doubt be drawn to the Greek legend in which following Argamemnon’s slaying of a deer that belonged to Artemis, the price the goddess demanded to release her hold on the wind — needed for the King’s ships to sail out to war — was the life of his own daughter, Iphigenia.
The director and co-writer, in transposing this ancient tale to a modern-day scenario, clearly wants us to see the way responsibility and justice can be brought on perpetrators of crime by worldly (or other-worldly) forces.
Soon, we learn about a medical misadventure years ago in which Martin’s father died while undergoing open-heart surgery carried out by Steven, who has had on that occasion too much to drink. And the deed he must now perform to break the curse upon Bob and Kim, delivered by the deceased patient’s surviving son, is as absurd as it is inconceivable.
Using astonishingly quotidian conversations (about body hair and lemonade and periods), and a deft air of eeriness, with Martin seemingly lurking at the edge of your consciousness, Lanthimos presents a horror story steeped in dark humour and retribution, quid pro quo and grisliness.
While a psychological thriller built on a well-known Greek tragedy is a novel concept, you cannot help but struggle to reconcile with the idea that Martin, the creepy, stony-faced, awkward youngster, bent on destruction is by parallel the goddess of wilderness, childbirth, virginity, Artemis.
Often pushed far inside the screen by Thimios Bakatakis’ wide-angled lens, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, unlike the Hellenic lore that allows for different possible endings, is about terminal sentence by birth, when hands are soaked indelibly in blood.