Warning: If it wasn’t obvious, we’re spoiling the heck out The Killing of a Sacred Deer below.
In some ways, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is Yorgos Lanthimos‘ most direct, explicitly stated narrative taken to its most direct, explicitly clear ending to date. Martin (Barry Keoghan) tells Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) that, in light of Steven botching Martin’s father’s surgery resulting in his death, Steven’s family (Nicole Kidman, Raffey Cassidy, Sunny Suljic) will die from a mysterious illness with mysterious symptoms, unless Steven himself chooses one to kill. The family starts experiencing all of these symptoms (paralysis, lack of appetite, eyes bleeding), no matter what Steven does. So, Steven spins in a circle with a hat over his eyes and randomly shoots and kills his son Bob (Suljic). In the final scene, we see the Murphy family minus Bob at a diner. Martin walks in. Looks at them without their youngest. And, satisfied, leaves the diner and leaves them be.
Totally makes sense, right? Uh…
Yes, from a nuts-and-bolts storytelling standpoint, Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou‘s screenplay has its characters say exactly what’s gonna happen, and then proceeds to let it happen. And thankfully, the film is not interested in the mechanics of how Martin can mystically will this poor family to undergo these horrors — while the film ramps up in pace as Steven tries to stop Martin’s actions, even resorting to kidnapping and torture, there is never a plot to uncover the “how” of his actions. No grand conspiracy, no examination of Martin’s past, no revelation of mythological superpowers. The closest moment we get to this kind of explanatory detective work comes from Steven’s wife Anna (Kidman) discovering through Steven’s partner Matthew (Bill Camp) that Steven was likely drunk during Martin’s father’s surgery — revealing not the source of Martin’s “powers,” but further “reason” that Steven deserves to be punished.
But: There is still much to discuss about Sacred Deer‘s ending, outside of the irrelevant “how” of Martin’s grip over the Murphy family. Namely, “why?” A question that everyone in the Murphy family seems interested in asking and accepting — from Anna’s examination of Steven’s past sins, to the children’s complete willingness to take what’s happening at face value. The person who takes the longest to ask the question and accept his answer? Steven. And that just might explain his fate.
“Fate” is not a word I choose lightly. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is directly concerned with fate, with cosmic punishment of human hubris, with our so-called free will crumbling under the uncaringly cruel banalities of the universe. In exploring these themes, the film reminded me very much of a modern update on a Greek tragedy. And wouldn’t you know it, Sacred Deer is inspired by an ancient Greek tragedy: Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis (called out by Lanthimos and Filippou directly, in revealing that Cassidy’s Kim wrote an essay on Iphigenia for her high school class). In the play, part of a trilogy Euripides wrote in his final years on earth, Agamemnon ponders whether or not to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis, who is purposefully stopping proper winds for Agamemnon’s fleet to successfully complete their invasion of Troy. Agamemnon’s fatal sin, his tragic flaw, if you will? Vanity — after the first wave of battles against Troy, he boasted that he was as skilled a battler as Artemis herself. As you might imagine, Artemis didn’t like that too much, demanding the blood sacrifice to bring Agamemnon back to earth. After furious debate among his family and fellow generals, Agamemnon decides to undergo the sacrifice, reasoning that angry Greeks eager for victory would kill his entire family if he didn’t.
In some manuscripts and translations of the play, though it’s up for debate whether it’s part of Euripides’ original texts, Agamemnon surprisingly decides to pull a final trick on this plan, replacing his daughter Iphigenia with — you guessed it — a sacred deer.
Applying this ancient story to Lanthimos’ work feels like enough of a 1:1 translation to start. Steven is Agamemnon. His sin of hubris translates into Steven’s reckless drinking and displays of wealth. Martin is both Artemis desiring the balance-restoring sacrifice, and the threat of Grecians killing Steven’s family if he doesn’t go through with it. But Lanthimos and Filippou aren’t interested in just adapting this Greek myth. In fact: They’re interested in correcting it.
There’s no switch for a sacred deer in the final moments of Sacred Deer. No tricks, no weaseling out. After spending nearly two hours agonizing over how to best the unwavering hand of fate, how to make unequal the ever-equalizing force of universal retribution, how to ignore the voices of “reason” around him (i.e. his daughter falling in love with Martin and begging to be the one sacrificed, his wife letting Martin escape from their impromptu torture basement), Steven gives in to as pure a fate as he can muster. Namely, he puts on a damn hat and spins in a damn circle to decide who he’ll kill. That’s about as random, as meaningfully meaningless, as admitting subservience to controllers beyond our control as you can get. Artemis wins.
In several moments of the film, Steven’s family tries to reassert Steven as the man in charge, rather than Martin, to try and pivot to another method of escaping fate. Anna “logically” points out that killing one of the children is a better choice because they can have another. Bob cuts his own hair, placating Steven’s early-film grumblings that his hair is too long. Even in the face of an unblinking God, us humans will search for any Earthly source of relief telling us it’s okay to blink. From the first shot to its last, Lanthimos’ Killing of a Sacred Deer is here to remind us that the universe will come to collect, and its eyes are forever wide open.