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In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a Greek myth becomes a family’s descent into hell

The director of The Lobster twists the myth of Iphigenia into a cautionary tale for the careless.

Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell headline in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell headline in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos honed his signature style in films like Dogtooth and The Lobster: His actors deliver stilted, formal lines with intentionally over-mannered delivery that belies their ludicrous situations, be it a family that’s kept its adult children from ever interacting with the world, or the residents of a hotel where everyone must find a mate within a few weeks or be turned into an animal. This weird formal style creates the illusion of a placid surface, which is invariably punctuated by grotesque, shocking violence.

The whole effect is calculated to both offend and make viewers sit up straighter, knowing that Lanthimos has some idea bubbling beneath the surface — usually a criticism of the norms that govern ostensibly polite societies.

In that respect, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is peak Lanthimos, though viewers might at first be tricked into thinking he’s deviated toward a more natural style. The film, which shared the Best Screenplay award at Cannes (with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here), stars Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman — a surgeon named Stephen and his opthamologist wife Anna — as the well-off parents of two children, Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). The family lives in an ordinary, affluent American suburb and appears to be mostly normal, if a little formal with one another.

The whole facade is shattered by the arrival in their lives of a teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan), whose father died on Stephen’s operating table. Feeling responsible, he’s been meeting with the boy since his father’s death and trying to keep an eye on him. But Martin has different designs on the family — and this being a Lanthimos film, it’s safe to guess it won’t end well.

Colin Farrell in The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Colin Farrell in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Late in the film, someone offhandedly mentions the Greek myth of Iphigenia, which, coupled with the film’s title, is the key that unlocks the whole puzzle. There are lots of versions of the Iphigenia myth, but the basic version starts when the Greek leader Agamemnon, while preparing his fleet to sail to Troy, accidentally kills a deer in a grove that is sacred to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. She punishes him by foiling his fleet’s plans. Distraught, Agamemnon seeks help from a seer, who tells him that to turn the tide he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. He at first refuses, but as the situation grows more dire he starts to reconsider. In many versions of the myth, Iphigenia herself catches wind of the god’s demand and pleads with her father to sacrifice her life.

The story ends differently in different versions; in some Iphigenia dies, in some she lives, and in some she is swapped out at the last moment for another deer, which dies in her stead as she survives. But the key element in all of them is that a great military leader is brought so low that he’s willing to consider sacrificing his own child to ensure his success.

Giving away the specifics would be unwise, so I won’t do it. But The Killing of a Sacred Deer, while not a one-to-one adaptation of the Iphigenia myth, certainly uses it as its base. In keeping with Greek tradition, though, Lanthimos takes the elements of the myth and remixes them once again, telling a story of might and sacrifice that collapses some characters into each other, while moving around a few other pieces to tell a new version of the story.

Barry Keoghan in The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Barry Keoghan in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

The result is a wholly modern take on the myth (with just a touch of Macbeth swirled in for good measure), and it’s a chilling one. There’s an avenging god lurking around the corner somewhere in the film, but that deity’s identity is uncertain: a particular character? A righteous God? Some force of transcendent evil? Banal human pride?

The result isn’t uplifting in the least. But it’s deliciously frightening, a cautionary tale for the careless and a horror film that posits a world devoid of any real goodness. In Lanthimos’s universe, love is a construction that falls down in the face of other human drives, whether it’s the drive to save face, to escape discomfort, to prevail against an enemy, or just to survive. The Killing of a Sacred Deer mixes all of those together in service of a myth-tinged nightmare.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, made its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, and is slated for release in the United States on October 20.