The characters in Yorgos Lanthimos’ films are famous for their stilted, robotic delivery, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer is far from an exception. But should it be chalked up entirely to style, or should we search for reasons within the universe for it to exist?
Why not both?
This strange style isn’t limited to the way Sacred Deer’s characters speak — it’s also in what they say. And if we follow the content of those emotionless conversations, we start to see some reasoning behind them. There will be some film spoilers below, so watch out.
Most of the film’s relationships, and the conversations that define them are transactional in nature. The first conversation is a bare exchange of facts about watch specs. It turns out that Steven (Colin Farrell) is so interested in watches because he wants to buy one for Martin (Barry Keoghan). This is the latest in a long line of gifts meant to placate Martin, whose father Steven killed on the operating table.
As becomes evident later in the film, the gifts are more or less a tribute to an angry and powerful god. And once the tribute runs out, the god, Martin, becomes vengeful.
The Murphy family dynamics are mostly a series of transactions and exchanges. Bob and Kim have assigned chores, and almost all of their interactions with their parents have to do with whether or not they’ve done them. Kim learns her brother is in the hospital when she’s told she’ll have to take over his watering of the plants.
And she probably would, except she too winds up in the hospital, unable to walk or eat. When they learn the truth behind their mystery illness — that Steven has to pick one of them to die — they start to bargain with the same transactions they used when they were healthy. Bob drags himself to the kitchen to show Steven that he’s cut the long hair Steven never liked, and to tell him that he’s changed his mind and wants to be a cardiologist (Steven’s own job). He then makes to drag himself outside to water the plants.
To Bob’s thinking, the best way to convince his father not to kill him is to give him all the things he wants from him. It’s a fair exchange.
It’s the same with the competition between the siblings. When they’re well, Kim and Bob squabble over a single MP3 player. When their lives are on the line, Kim torments Bob by saying she’ll be able to take it from him when he’s dead. When emotions are at their peak, they’re still voiced in these little exchanges of goods.
These transactions pervade the film — in exchange for information about Steven’s past, Anna gives Matthew the anesthesiologist a handjob. Martin offers his mother to Steven as a new wife. Body hair is asked to be seen and, unnervingly, shown.
The driving force behind the film itself is a transaction — for the death of one member of his family, Martin demands the death of one of Steven’s. An eye for an eye.
If characters interact mainly through exchanges and transactions, their words are reduced to descriptions of the exchanges. It makes sense for them to be delivered so flatly — they’re little more than invoices.
In Sacred Deer actions really do speak louder than words. And it makes for a very alien and unnerving portrait of a world that looks but doesn’t sound like our own.