The Killing of a Scared Deer: A Modern Greek Tragedy
Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos is known for his surreal and otherworld films. His films, which often address themes of human existence and society, are bounded together with striking imagery and jarring formal qualities that work to communicate the philosophical ideologies behind each piece. In his latest film, The Killing of a Scared Deer, a modern retelling of Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis, Lanthimos returns to dramas origins, using Aristotle’s fundamentals of tragedy to create a Greek tragedy for the modern era.
In Poetics, Aristotle defines tragedy as “the imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions” (Landa 15). Aristotle’s notion that the drama’s action creates a cathartic experience in the audience, which goes beyond the drama’s narrative, has been the basis of tragedies for centuries, and, like many storytellers, Lanthimos builds The Killing of a Scared Deer around Aristotle’s tragic elements. In order to construct a drama that compels the audience through action, Lanthimos creates layers within his film that entices the audience into the film’s world. On a conscious level, Lanthimos uses affect and emotions to produce the film’s overall mood, and, on an unconscious level, Lanthimos uses symbolic imagery and signs to communicate how tragic elements have evolved since ancient Greece. Lanthimos links the emotion and symbols of his film to its Greek origins, as the overall style of his film reflects on the modern morality of tragedy.
In the conscious level, Lanthimos produces an intense and visceral mood in The Killing of a Sacred Deer through his use of formal qualities, most notably the acting, music, and camera work. Lanthimos uses emotions and affects as a crucial element in creating the chilling and unruly atmosphere of the film’s world, provoking a bodily reaction within the audience to the horrors depicted on the screen. The acting, which relies on uncanny mannerisms and a lack of empathy, is hyper-styled, abnormal, and detached from reality that arouses an eerier and unsettling sensation within the audience. The actors’ mechanical mannerisms, most notably in their disengaged interactions and unnatural speech patterns, play against the audience’s desire to experience performances that are grounded in reality. Instead, Lanthimos gives them performances that are robotic, abnormal, and untruthful. Moreover, the lack of empathy that is emitted from the actors’ performances, with their cold detachment and highly unemotional reactions to distressing situations, results in a disconnect between the viewer and the character: the viewer is unable to see the characters as rational human beings because of their dispassionate and alien behavior. Like in a Greek tragedy, Lanthimos creates an emotional separation between the audience and the characters, allowing the audience to acknowledge the inhumanness of each characters’ tragic actions.
Lanthimos also uses a variety of music to build the mood of his film. He scores the film with violent classical music, like Siegfried Palm’s “Konzert für Violoncello und Orchester” and Janne Rättyä’s “De Profundis,” which relies heavily on striking string instruments that at times mimics terrorizing sounds, like human screams. Lanthimos pairs this highly intense and distressing music with images of emotionless actors, producing a stark dichotomy between the emotive score and the emotionless images. Additionally, Kim’s singing, which happens periodically throughout the film, is slightly off-key — not enough to be consciously noticed, but just enough to evoke a bodily reaction to the unbalanced sound. The formal score and Kim’s singing builds up a deep anxiety and overwhelming fear within the audience, as their bodies are bombarded with fierce musical stimulants while their conscious minds are observing dispassionate performances. This produces a sense of fear and anxiety in the audience, as they are unsure about how to respond to the two conflicting stimulants.
Finally, Lanthimos’s striking camera work, such as his persistent use of intense close-ups and long zooms, also manipulates the audience’s emotions and builds up the world’s unsettling mood. Compared to the conventional use of close-ups in cinema, Lanthimos utilizes the feature not to emphasize the emotions felt by the characters, but rather the lack of emotions the characters are experiencing. When Lanthimos uses a pure close-up of characters, their expressions are emotionless, their eyes are lifeless, and they lack any recognition of the tragedy that is unfolding around them. Additionally, Lanthimos’s long zooms, which appear in nearly every scene, have a profound impact on the audience, forcing them to become conscious of their voyeuristic behavior of peering into the private lives of these inhuman characters. Lanthimos’s pronounced camera work serves as a reminder to the audience that they are watching a film, a dramatization of tragedy, which provokes an uncomfortable and surreal emotional relationship within them. These emotions distance the audience from the characters, as they become unconsciously aware that the characters on screen are not humans but rather projections of the humans the audience should avoid becoming.
Throughout The Killing of a Scared Deer, Lanthimos uses the unnatural acting, intense score, and obtrusive camera work to stimulate the film’s bizarre mood, which leaves the audience feeling horrified and violated by the intensity of their emotions. Lanthimos takes advantage of the audience’s background understanding of human nature, tragedy, and even modern cinema to completely subvert their exceptions for the film; he doesn’t provide the audience with the experiences they expect (a film grounded in reality), but rather his film is exceptionally sensationalized, bizarrely inhuman, and viscerally otherworldly. This surreal and artificial reality of the film produces an unconscious bodily reaction within the audience — a physical reaction to the unnatural behaviors and actions that jolts a real and uncomfortable fear within them towards this tragic situation.
The unnerving mood of The Killing of a Sacred Deer stimulates the pity and fear required to produce the tragedy’s final cathartic release within the audience, but Lanthimos ventures deeper into the viewer’s unconscious through the use of symbolic imagery — kisses, hands, and eyes — to comment on the modern morality of the 21st Century tragedy. Firstly, Lanthimos uses the symbolic action of kissing to emphasize the God-like status of both Martin and Steven. Steven’s hands are glorified and worshipped through the gesture when Martin’s mother sexually kisses Steven’s hands. Similarly, Anna, groveling for forgiveness on Steven’s behalf, bows down to Martin and kisses his feet. These gestures, which are culturally understood to symbolize divinity or royalty (i.e. women kissing Jesus’s feet, servants kissing their master’s feet, noblemen kissing the King’s hand), unconsciously force the audience to see these two characters as worshipped immortal Gods, rather than the mortals they are embodying. It also subconsciously associates the other characters — the symbolically “human” figures — around Steven and Martin as mere pawns and servants in the dance between these two powerful forces.
Lanthimos continues to build Steven’s God-like dominance through the progression of Steven’s hands that transform from “beautiful” and untainted to bloody and bruised. Twice Lanthimos emphasizes Steven’s hands: firstly, in the opening sequence of the film, in which he shows Steven shedding his bloody surgery gloves to reveal his clean and pristine hands underneath, and later, he shows them bloody and bruised, no longer pure and unspoiled, after Steven forcibly kidnaps and tortures Martin. In the former, Steven’s act of removing the blood from his hands dispels him from the responsibility of his deadly actions. In the ladder, he has become entangled in the lives he has destroyed, no longer detached from the tragedies he causes. Lanthimos’s imagery suggests Steven’s position, as a doctor with uncontested power and influence over civilian lives, is the modern-day equivalent to divine authority. As his hands transform from clean to spoiled, his misuse of power is exposed, labeling him via his bloody hands as a corrupt and immoral human.
As a contrast, Lanthimos uses Bob, Steven’s youngest and weakest child, to illustrate the impact of Steven’s divine authority over the weak. Bob is the first to reach the final stage of Martin’s curse — bleeding from the eyes before death. The striking and abrasive imagery of young Bob bleeding from his eyes is reminiscent of Greek tragedies, most notably Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. Unlike Oedipus, who gouges his own eyes out as penitence for his incestuous acts, Bob weeps blood due to his father’s misdeeds. The lessons of traditional tragedies, in which the tragic hero must repent for his hubris, are not followed in Lanthimos’s modern tragedy. Rather Bob becomes a tragic sacrifice for Steven’s hubris, leaving the tragic hero without any sort of repentance. The allusion Lanthimos’s creates between Bob’s bleeding eyes and classic Greek tragedies notes how this modern tragedy is dictated not by moral correction but rather the domination of the God-like figures over the weak.
These images when brought together create a new meaning for tragedies in the modern world. Whereas Gods in ancient Greek tragedies were mysterious and divine figures, Lanthimos’s God is a socially powerful and corrupt human. In Lanthimos’s modern adaptation, divinity equates to power and dominance in humanity rather than in the holy. Lanthimos’s film provides a critique on modern society’s perception of powerful figures: the doctor, who holds unchallenged authority in society due to his profession, abuses his power to kill, harm, and control those with less influence, most notably children and women. Lanthimos’s commentary villainizes modern figures who use their professions and status as divine, allowing them to carry out misdeeds, like sacrificing a young boy for his own gain, without any consequences.
Like the ancient Greek tragedy, Lanthimos uses emotion and imagery to go beyond the drama’s narrative to craft the audience’s cathartic experience. Yet, unlike Aristotle’s idea of the tragedy, where the catharsis provides a learning experience that will make the viewer a better individual, Lanthimos’s cathartic moment offers no lesson nor reshaping of morality. Though Lanthimos incites intense fear and pity in his audience, what he doesn’t offer is a final moral lesson. In the finale of the film, there is no downfall of the tragic hero: once Steven kills Bob to break the curse, the family, with one less member, goes out to dinner and continues life as normal. No lessons have been learned; no morals questioned. Lanthimos leaves the suffering audience with the explosive catharsis release, but no validation for that catharsis. What Lanthimos creates is the building blocks for a modern Greek tragedy that reflects on our immoral world; a world where we become desensitized, like Steven and his family, to the tragedies around us, continuing on life as normal despite the horrors we experience. This modern tragedy doesn’t end with a moral redemption or a justified act of sacrifice. It ends with a man, who holds God-like privilege and power in society, killing his youngest young son for his own selfish purposes. The modern tragedy is not one of redemption or evolution, but one of selfishness and power.
The Killing of a Scared Deer. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, performances by Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, and Barry Keoghan, A24, Curzon Artificial Eye, 2017.
Landa, José Angel García. “Aristotle’s Poetics.” Humanities Commons, https://hcommons.org/deposits/objects/hc:17262/datastreams/CONTENT/content.
Livingstone, Paisley and Carl Plantinga. The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film. Routledge, 2009.
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