Stab Your Father, Shoot Your Son:
The Murderous Families of
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Stories about the monsters we invite into our homes
and the monsters that were already there.
Shakespeare may have been the most prolific creator of murderous families. Hamlet stabs his uncle (after his uncle poisons his father), Othello and Iago both murder their wives, Titus kills his daughter, the list goes on. These deaths, the ones that come at the hands of a relative – in Shakespeare, in Greek tragedies, and in reality – are always among the most transgressive and gruesome to the imagination. Moreover, they make us wonder how could someone violate such a sacred bond. It seems sacrosanct. After all, aren't family ties the strongest social bond we know as a species?
These stories would have you know that blood is not thicker than water. In fact, the entire saying is "the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb." That is, our covenants – those bonds we form with our peers (in the original context, fellow parishioners) – overshadow our genetic relationships. Maybe when we spill the water of the womb, we reveal our true blood.
The basic premise of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is simple: a heart surgeon, Steven (Colin Farrell), has killed a patient and the dead man's son, Martin (Barry Keoghan), seeks revenge. When Steven fails to make amends with Martin, his family is targeted by Martin's mysterious godlike abilities and prescience. After Steven's youngest child falls ill, Martin makes his judgement clear – if Steven fails to kill a family member, his entire family will die.
As the movie progresses, we learn more about Steven's character. He blames an anesthesiologist for the death of Martin's father, but we know from that anesthesiologist that Steven is really to blame (he was inebriated during the surgery but alleges to his wife that he is a recovered alcoholic). Steven's alcoholism isn't his only thematically significant vice in the film – we see him take his family to a gluttonous diner, he lives in a cavernous yet barren McMansion, he indulges his bizarre sexual perversions – and his vices are similarly notable in that he never confronts them. We never see him genuinely admit fault. Instead he tries to force Martin to reverse the curse and nearly allows both of his children to succumb before he's forced to intervene, trading the life of Martin's father for the life of his son. Accidental death by Steven's hand is met with reciprocally intentional death, and the curse is lifted.
The film ends with a warning: In the diner, the family digs into another greasy caloric onslaught, lacking their son but retaining all their piggishness. They've learned nothing. Well, maybe they've learned one thing – Martin enters the diner, still sporting bruises from Steven's attempts to coerce a premature end to the curse, and the family makes a fearful and immediate departure. Steven and his wife look ashamed as they leave, but their remaining child, a daughter of Martin's age, lingers lustfully before Steven hastens her exit.
Yorgos Lanthimos, the director, is an expert in enigmatic nuance, which define his films. His lens moves with taut, Kubrickian steadiness that feels predatory, ready to pounce. He treats the mysteries of the movie – namely Martin's powers and the curse – as opaque, without ultimate resolution or explanation. If the audience cares to dig deeper into the title of the film and the underlying Greek mythology, these questions have answers, but they're unanswered by Lanthimos in the film because they're unimportant in the context of the tragedy.
Rather, the importance of the film lies in Steven's inability to repent after offending a god. Martin punishes Steven's family for their patriarch's sins, and Steven, inhumanly narcissistic and unwavering in his self-assurances, never acknowledges responsibility. By the film's end, the passions of Aristotle's Poetics come to mind as we fear Martin and pity the dead son; the living child, the daughter, is last seen gazing at Martin in awe, having experienced his power firsthand. Perhaps she's the next generation, preferring a new monster to the one at home.
In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, a plague falls over Thebes because Oedipus' murder of his father, Laius, has gone unsolved, causing religious miasma. The story of Oedipus practically sets the thematic archetype of tragedy – at one point, the chorus states "count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last," and the plot follows a seemingly virtuous man's preordained descent into debauchery, driven by factors outside his control. This harrowing and potentially cynical meditation on the human condition is reflected in another line from the chorus, "not to be born is best."
The cure for Thebes' plague was obvious enough – identify Laius' killer (tragically, Oedipus himself) – but the biological nature of the plague lacked the same clarity. Historical epidemiology research has revealed the same tenants of Athens who enjoyed Oedipus were likely suffering from the very disease that inspired the literary plague itself. As a result, this tragedy likely transcended literary bounds, offering up a cathartic scapegoat in Oedipus' fictional transgressions against his parents for the reality of unpleasant (and sometimes lethal) brucellosis. In Oedipus, Sophocles may have relieved his audience's passions, engendered by their own tragic realities, by allowing them an effective (albeit fictitious) moral resolution for an entirely amoral and indiscriminate disease.
Thoroughbreds was written and directed by a playwright (Cory Finley), and it shows. Almost every violent moment occurs offscreen, much of the film is dialogue-driven, two-character scenes, and climactic moments are conveyed through reaction shots instead of direct reveals. Finley, like many great playwrights, also deeply explores the concept of tragic irony as he portrays two young women coming into their own.
Amanda (Olivia Cooke) is a sociopath. Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) is, in some respects, overly emotional. Both are well-off – Lily more so – teenagers in horse country. They're childhood friends who have grown distant, and they reconnect after both are alienated from their family and peers at the start of the film – Lily is expelled from a prestigious boarding school for plagiarism and Amanda violently euthanizes her family's elderly thoroughbred stallion with a knife. After they hang out a few times, Lily proposes that Amanda kill her (Lily's) stepdad, Mark (Paul Sparks).
Amanda resists the idea but compromises with Lily in contracting an amateur hitman, Tim (the late Anton Yelchin), although this plan fails when Tim's comedic amateurism proves to be pure incompetence. After another attempted confrontation that sheds no blood, Lily takes matters into her own hands, rendering Amanda unconscious with a date-rape drug before killing Mark and framing Amanda for the crime. Before she consumes the drugged cocktail, Amanda discovers the plot but acquiesces after Lily coerces her into believing that Lily's happiness and freedom (with full-blown emotions) outweigh her own emotionless existence.
The film ends with a chance encounter between Lily and Tim. Lily is on her way to a college interview, Tim is now a valet. He asks how Lily is holding up – he heard about what Amanda did to Mark. Lily blithely responds that she's fine, and that she received a letter from Amanda recently. We cut to Amanda in the mental hospital where she now resides, having been convicted of Mark's murder, and she narrates her letter to Lily. She says that life is decent as a prisoner and reflects on her dreams: In one, she's with Lily. In another, she's her dead horse, floating above their community and watching as humans "disappear into the internet" and the thoroughbred horses come out of their stables to create a new society. As Amanda narrates, we see her admiring a childhood photograph of her and Lily on their horses and she expresses genuine happiness for the first time. Back with Tim and Lily, Tim asks what the letter was about, and Lily responds, "I don't know. I just threw it away." Roll credits.
Lily's callousness and narcissism in the final scene are revealing. It becomes clear midway through the film that, while he may not have been particularly nice, Mark did not deserve to be murdered. In one scene, during an exchange with Lily, he says something to the effect of, "You think everyone works for you – we're all your gardeners and maids and hairdressers, but that's not how the world is." By the time the credits roll, it seems like he was right. If Lily didn't have the empathy to read the letter, she's less compassionate than the literal sociopath she framed for her murder, and the "feelings" Amanda sacrificed her freedom for may not have been there to start. Interestingly, it's a quasi-happy ending: Lily's got her groove back, she's off to college and well on her way to world domination; Amanda might be imprisoned but her letter implies that she's emotionally freer than ever, thanks to Lily (so-what if the version of Lily she knew was a fraud). Even this dark cloud of unpunished murder and wrongful imprisonment has silver linings for its main characters.
These stories are all tragedies, to be sure. They're pitiful, fearsome tales of woe, focusing on death, despair, lethal curses, offended gods and doomed mortals, flawed and fallible friends, unhappy families becoming more unhappy, violent, and destructive. They're stories about the monsters we invite into our homes and the monsters that were already there. And they've got all those Aristotelian necessities: we're fearful of the events – of sinning, failing, of allowing our most base instincts drive our lives, of being complacent as we become our worst selves – and we pity the outcomes – dead children, dead parents, and a supreme dearth of moral victories.
In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Steven's duty to apologize for the death of Martin's father might in itself be Sisyphean but he makes no attempt, even with his progeny in mortal danger. Instead, he essentially throws a tantrum and is forced to sacrifice one of his children anyways – another casualty to perpetuate his vast and vacant lifestyle. His surviving family joins him in this failure to improve as they return to their darkly American habits of gluttony and recklessness (Steven's wife reminds him that they can make another child). At the same time, the tragedy of Thoroughbreds belongs more to the audience than to its characters as Amanda develops real positive emotions from her unselfish friendship while Lily's narcissistic and manipulative intentions are made clear, tainting Amanda's sacrifice with irony. Again, neither character learns from their sins; Lily can continue to plagiarize her way through life and Amanda doesn't need to negotiate the complexities of living a normal life without emotions.
Both films feature posters and cinematography that give a sense of looming emptiness above the characters, tall ceilings disappearing out of the frame. For Steven, this is space for his ghosts to hover over him as he ignores them, never courageous enough to look up. For Lily and Amanda, this is a place the audience can call home, from which to anonymously look down on their murderous machinations. An extreme downward camera angle is employed throughout Thoroughbreds when Lily and Amanda look up at the ceiling under Mark's room, and we shouldn't forget that this framing suggests they're looking at us. Don't forget: They're planning on murdering the thing they're looking at. In both worlds, the audience's view is God's view, sterile and uncaring, omnipresent and omniscient. We're not here to judge – someone else is already doing that, even if it gets them killed. And when that judge survives, as in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a blood payment is still required.
Tragedies like these might be cautionary tales, but they transcend the stories they tell. They're not literal, not meant to tell us to not be cursed by a vengeful god or to not kill our too-strict stepdads. Rather, they relieve our passions. They show us how to live (and how not to live). One need not set inebriated open-heart surgery as the low threshold for recklessness that can endanger family or friends, nor should we make sacrifices for friends who demand that we give all of ourselves when they indicate an unwillingness to do the same (even when specifics include personality disorders and murder); these messages are the ones that are most important. The ominous space above the characters, where God and audience cohabitate to observe the characters: it exists in reality, too. Above each of us is the same vast emptiness, and stories like these confront us with a choice – if we had an onlooker in that space, what would we want them to see? Something better than Steven and Lily, better than Shakespeare's murderers and Oedipus' fall from grace, perhaps.
Thoroughbreds, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Oedipus Rex are set in stone – their stories have been decided, and will never change. The characters are doomed to their failings, again and again, viewing after viewing. Our lives, however, are not fixed in tragedy. Rather, we can find utility here: we can embrace the tragedies and attempt to understand them. More than anything, we can learn from them, as not to repeat their mistakes ourselves.