Putting Hands Into Glass: Satire in The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer | A24
A24

 “They had never struggled, and only a struggle twists sentimentality and lust together into love.”

— E. M. Forster


There’s no love in
The Killing of a Sacred Deer. There’s no human connection and no possibility of sentimentality. But that’s a good thing. If anything, the world of Yorgos Lanthimos’ film is complementary to the aforementioned quote, blending disconnect and emptiness to wring despair from the one percent. Each character speaks like they’re just short of breath; they exhale words with an aimless precision as curt and unforgiving as the predicaments they find themselves in.

There’s an effortlessness to the world that lines up with the film’s straight-and-narrow structure. Nothing about it is needlessly complex; very little falls back into itself structurally. The Killing of a Sacred Deer instead provides a deceitfully complex look at a brand of nihilism so often adopted by the upper-middle class, used to deflect the threat of domestic banality or subdue emotional threats from all incoming forces. Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou’s script operates in a valley of negative space, shining an interrogative light on the privilege of the American upper-middle class, while the filmmaking accentuates its technically-driven satire.

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Shallowness as Characterization

It’s a film where archetypes reign: There’s Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), the bumbling patriarch and heart surgeon in charge of saving lives. There’s his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), whose Eyes Wide Shut-esque ringlets and American Gothic stare can cut through glass. Below them are their children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic), whom the script defines by her love of music and his shaggy hair. They reside in the kind of house the 1 percent paints as the status quo, and although their rooms are full and interactions are regular, there’s no reason to believe these people truly live together.

Enter Martin (Barry Keoghan), a teenage boy who has formed a father-son relationship with Steven after the death of his own father. Martin’s dad died on the operating table under Steven’s care and it’s implied that such a dynamic formed due to the surgeon’s moral obligation. As the film progresses, Martin insinuates himself into the Murphy family and reveals his true motives—to get revenge on Steven by forcing him to kill a member of his own family. Such an act will “balance” the act of killing Martin’s father. Otherwise, “they will all get sick and die. Bob will die. Kim will die. Your wife will die. They will all get sick and die.”The Killing of a Sacred Deer | A24He recites these stakes with a childlike precociousness laid over the malevolence of a true American psycho. The unspecified—and implied to be supernatural—sickness that infects Steven’s children comes in four stages: paralysis of the legs; refusal to eat; bleeding from the eyes; and death. Soon enough, Bob becomes infected. Then Kim follows suit. Anna proposes that they murder one of their children given that they can have another, and yet Steven remains unsure, tying up his family and firing a rifle at random. He pierces Bob’s heart, and just as Martin lacks a father, Steven comes to lack a son. The world has reached its even playing field—but it isn’t all that black-and-white.

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Serve Up America, Eat the Rich

Based on the ancient Greek play Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides (and even referencing it in dialogue), the script moves the universal horror of its source material to suburban America. What sticks out the most about this shift is the ease in which characters fulfill their societal moldings. Nuggets of American iconography tether this world to ours, and despite the colonial houses, apple pies, donuts, and barbeques, each person acts as a “positive” to fulfill their surrounding negative spaces. Their sole purpose is to return society to a neutral status quo. Nothing may change; no one’s clout may shift. Everyone is simply going through the motions, waiting for something to topple the scale of existence. This “something” is revenge.

And that’s where the film’s moral complexity comes from. Lanthimos is no stranger to uncanny writing, and as such, it makes sense that The Killing of a Sacred Deer works as a pitch-black comedy. (Kidman herself revealed in press conferences that Lanthimos referred to the film as a comedy, telling his actors to embrace such a tone and “just come in and be” when on set.) It’s a whirl of nihilistic humor and deadpan expressionism that places the nuclear family on a morgue slab and bandies their innards with the hands of an Old Testament God. It’s cruel and tragic, yet it’s hilarious and carries an “eat the rich” catharsis in its bluntness.

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Anesthetized Intimacy

The satire of the film is rooted in the subset of nihilism exhibited by the rich and the white—those who can afford to not care about anything. Conversations are banal and punctuated by exaggerated narcissisms (“We all have lovely hair!” Anna dryly proclaims at the end of a dinner exchange early on). These discussions putt along by way of what feel like non-sequiturs. Kids talk more about their body hair than their interests; adults brag about their kids’ menstruation and piano talents with equal inflections. References to technology are decidedly vague: characters don’t use brand names for their iPhones and prefer terms like “MP3 player.” Everyone talks like they’re under hypnosis from domesticity itself—like they’re in a competition to talk the most but say the least.The Killing of a Sacred Deer | A24This verbal disconnection isn’t the only piece of the film’s uncanniness. Physical intimacy is often depicted but never fulfilled, with sexual interactions reserved to one party remaining completely passive. Early on in the film, Steven and Anna partake in their usual kink in which the latter pretends to be under general anesthetic. (It’s eerily close to necrophilia.) Later, when Martin’s mother (Alicia Silverstone) flirts with Steven, she compliments his “so white and soft and clean” hands before sucking on his fingers without consent. Then there’s another point where Anna bribes a colleague of Steven’s, Matthew (Bill Camp) for information on Martin’s father: she gives him a handjob, the camera focused on Anna’s upper third while her shoulder moves like a killer scrubbing bloodstains from a rug. It’s nothing if not ironic.

In fact, there isn’t even so much as a kiss in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Characters’ interactions are as distant as can be while still being physical; the parties in question are never at the same level physically or psychologically. The most emotionally intimate scene of the film exists in its twisted idea of father-son bonding, in which Steven tells Bob a childhood secret in an effort to get him to walk again. That secret, however, is that Steven sexually assaulted his own father while he was asleep. This is the bonding that exists in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, because this is the natural next step into amorality for the American upper class.

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An Invisible, Descending Spiral

Despite the inhuman behavior, it’s the shot composition that gives the film its most off-putting aspects. Lanthimos and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis establish their own visual language for The Killing of a Sacred Deer, creating a relentlessly asymmetrical movie with half-empty frames. In wider shots, the camera gazes upon its subjects with just enough distance to paint them as inhuman and rob them of whatever humanity one could project onto them. The Murphys’ dinnertime early in the film demonstrates this, with a swath of shadows bleeding towards the edges of the frame. This positions the family as small and detached from their surroundings and one another.

When a subject divides the frame vertically (e.g. during a conversation), they leave too much empty space behind and above them. During a cocktail party where Steven and Anna brag about their children, Lanthimos and Bakatakis position characters directly in the center of the frame. The filmmakers don’t balance the weight of a given subject and its surroundings, and the lack of personal space is suffocating yet nonchalant. The wide shots, however, leave excess room above and around characters, and the conflation of different mise-en-scènes makes environments pulsate with unintelligible power. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, suburbia either crushes characters from above or sneaks up on them from behind.The Killing of a Sacred Deer | A24And while these relationships between subjects and environments are the most overt, the visual subtleties create the uncanniest aspects of the experience. This can be seen when Martin first arrives to the Murphy household. Reverse shots combine with establishing shots to create an omnipresent predation to the camera, and as the scene cuts nearer to the characters, reverse shots give way to slightly closer profile shots. The staging draws a link between the visibility of one’s face and a character’s psychology. This continues as front-facing shots become increasingly common, and as Martin becomes acquainted with Steven’s family, the film provides decidedly shallow detail of the characters’ faces. It’s claustrophobic and decidedly awkward but cements the irony of the film, and this synthesis of shot composition and deadpan performances subverts expectations regarding physical and emotional intimacy. Such design pattern is replicated and inverted later on in the film, most notably when Bob becomes paralyzed at the hospital.

Once the film establishes this compositional logic, it begins to speak through framing rather than words. Uncomfortable interactions and reveals—Steven’s reaction to Martin’s mother, or Martin when discussing death—are shown from a slight left profile view. Realizations—like Steven saying that Martin has “serious psychological issues” or Kim and Anna noticing that Martin can will them into sickness and health—are shot from a slight right profile view. Moments of guilt are also shot this way, and when characters reveal something, they’re usually shot from behind or largely out of frame. It all creates a spatial loop to disorient viewers.

It’s captured almost exclusively through hard edges that are austere and unwelcoming, and the production design is as cold as it is refined. It’s too cold—too fine—to come off as realistic. Characters are often kept from audiences or from others by way of glass panes and windows, allowing them to look at things but see nothing.  

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“Do you understand? It’s metaphorical.”

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is elaborate not only in its filmmaking, but in how its filmmaking informs the morality of its script. And yet through all this, Steven’s patriarchal stature remains paramount. His wife and children are pathetic in their worshiping of him for the sake of staying alive, and the emptiness of the Murphys’ familial ties remain clear. Steven’s hands—his tools of creation—are admired like Michelangelo’s paintbrushes. But after all, there is something holy about Steven’s hands. They can save lives; they can take them. Steven just doesn’t know how to use them, much less how others use their tools when faced with trauma.

The bubble in which he lives is coated with red bricks and clear glass. It’s the epitome of American success, and even Martin alludes to its allure. “We live in a not-so-nice neighborhood in a not-no-nice house,” he says about his mother and himself. But when we see the exterior of his home later on, it’s nothing less than what most families strive for: two stories high, painted white, and completely unassuming. It’s just that Steven’s house is less unassuming—more grandiose and prouder in its repute.

There’s a point midway through the film where Kim comes home at night. Anna stands in the blackness donning a nightgown, hose in hand. She waters the flowers without a care, and as Kim asks about Bob’s ailing health, the two gently shift their eyes like family members checking the mail. “What has the other side sent us today?” it seems as if they’re thinking. “Oh, death threats? That’s not very nice.”

And as Martin says to Steven later in the film: “Do you understand? It’s metaphorical. My example—it’s a metaphor.”