Unveiling The Real Significance of ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’

Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has carved a unique niche for himself in the world of modern cinema. His 2017 psychological horror/thriller ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ stands as a testament to his artistic prowess, garnering a dedicated following among cinephiles. While the central storyline appears straightforward, the film’s deliberate lack of exposition often leaves audiences grappling with the question, “What is really happening?” Yet, Lanthimos offers a subtle nod toward unravelling the film’s true essence.

At its surface, ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ follows the narrative of esteemed cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Steven Murphy (portrayed by Colin Farrell). Once grappling with alcoholism and a patient’s mysterious death, Dr. Murphy crosses paths with Martin (played by Barry Keoghan), the son of the deceased. As Martin insinuates himself into the Murphy family’s life, his actions take on a sinister tone, eventually coercing Dr. Murphy into a harrowing decision.

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Image Courtesy: NPR

The film’s enigmatic layers, coupled with its clinical direction and stylized dialogue, create a narrative puzzle. Fortunately, Lanthimos offers viewers a breadcrumb trail to decode the film’s underlying theme: the Greek myth of Iphigenia.

A pivotal scene sees Dr Murphy probing the headmaster of his children’s school to discern which child is “better.” This unsettling inquiry aligns with Martin’s demand for Dr Murphy to choose a family member to sacrifice to prevent all of them from perishing. The headmaster’s reference to Dr. Murphy’s daughter’s essay on the myth of Iphigenia serves as a roadmap to understanding the film’s cryptic message.

The myth of Iphigenia recounts how King Agamemnon incurs the wrath of the goddess Artemis by slaying one of her sacred stags. In retribution, Artemis demands the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia. Parallels between the myth and the film emerge, casting Dr. Murphy as a contemporary Agamemnon, and Martin as a modern incarnation of Artemis, embodying a vengeful force of subjective justice.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Image Courtesy: Reddit

The film’s interpretation of the myth leaves room for interpretation, blurring the lines between victim and sacrificer. While the original myth focuses on Iphigenia’s sacrifice, the film’s narrative remains more open-ended. Whether the sacrificial family member serves as an analogue to Iphigenia or represents the innocent deer that substitutes her at the last moment remains subject to audience interpretation.

While the mythological context doesn’t offer concrete explanations for the film’s supernatural elements, it reframes the narrative as a timeless fable exploring themes of justice, revenge, and the hubris of humanity. ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ emerges as a complex and thought-provoking cinematic experience, inviting audiences to delve into its multifaceted layers.

– Farheen Ali