The Ancient Greek Plays That Explain How The Killing of a Sacred Deer Got Its Title

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Barry Keoghan in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Photo: A24

After watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos’s brilliant follow-up to his critically beloved and surprisingly lucrative The Lobster, you may have some questions. Many of these might have to do with terrifying moral quandaries and the dizzying, incomprehensible price of blood. While I can’t help you with those, I can explain what the deal is with that title, and, by extension, the Greek myths underlying the story. It might not soothe your existential dread, but it’s a start.

We have two clues to work with in deciphering Lanthimos’s influences in crafting the story with his co-writer, Efthymis Filippou: the title, and a passing reference to Iphigenia that a principal casually lets slip midway through the film. Let’s start with Iphigenia. The simplest version of her story, dating back to the 5th century BCE, is that Agamemnon, the king who led the Greeks into battle against the Trojans, sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia for the sake of the war effort — but, unsurprisingly, it’s a lot more complicated than just that.

The oldest account of events pertaining to the Trojan War that we have is in Homer’s epic the Iliad, which, interestingly, does not mention Iphigenia by name; while there is speculation about certain lines potentially referencing Iphigenia’s sacrifice, Agamemnon also offers one of his three daughters to the warrior Achilles in exchange for him returning to the fight, making no mention of having sacrificed any of said daughters before getting his war on. One of them does have a name that starts with an I, though it isn’t Iphigenia. Is it the same daughter? Who can say! Welcome to reading 2,500-year-old literature!

But Iphigenia pops up more clearly in two Greek tragedies: one by the OG tragedian, Aeschylus, and one by his later colleague, Euripides. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, the first part of his Oresteia, Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra murders him as revenge for sacrificing Iphigenia, a cycle that then leads to their son Orestes murdering her, as well as her lover Aegisthus, which we’ll get to later. But in Agamemnon, Iphigenia’s sacrifice is motivated by a somewhat ambiguous cause: When two eagles kill and eat a pregnant hare and its unborn offspring, the seer Calchas prophecies out of the omen that Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter to appease Artemis, the goddess of childbirth, who isn’t too happy about the upcoming slaughter of the Trojans.

However, in Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis, the reason for Iphigenia’s sacrifice is made more explicit: Agamemnon accidentally killed a sacred deer that belonged to Artemis, and she requires blood in return. Iphigenia is told she’ll be married off to Achilles, but instead, the marriage is a sham to hide her murder. (The combination of weddings and death goes back way before Game of Thrones.) This is, essentially, the plot of Lanthimos’s movie: Heart surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell) accidentally killed Martin’s (Barry Keoghan) father on the operating table, and Martin demands the sacrifice of one of Steven’s loved ones as compensation. “It’s the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice,” Martin tells Steven’s wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and his words locate us firmly in the world of the ancient Greeks, where death is usually answered with death.

But it’s how Lanthimos changes this source material that elevates Sacred Deer to the level of a masterpiece. The reason I mentioned Agamemnon is because, in many ways, it has more to tell us about the world of Lanthimos than Euripides’s more humanistic treatment of Iphigenia. In Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia is ultimately spared from sacrifice by Artemis — notice the shades of Abraham and Isaac — and in another play by Euripides, Iphigenia at Tauris, she’s revealed to be serving as the high priestess of Artemis, where she now bears the ironic responsibility of handling human sacrifice.

No such reprieve awaits Steven and his family. Martin reveals that, if Steven doesn’t kill one of his family members, they will all die, first by losing their ability to walk, then by refusing to eat, and then, finally, by bleeding from their eyeballs. At first, Martin’s punishment seems sadistic: Patients die on the operating table all the time, and such brutality directed toward a doctor — particularly when, as Steven points out, “a surgeon never kills a patient; only an anesthesiologist can kill a patient” — feels extreme. But we gradually learn that Steven drank the day of the surgery; and that, as the anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp) reminds Anna, “an anesthesiologist never kills a patient; only a surgeon can kill a patient.” (For his troubles, Matthew receives an Aegisthusian hand job from Anna.)

It isn’t just the drinking, though. In one sense, Steven’s sin is America’s sin. He lives in a beautiful house, with a family that, from the outside, appears perfect; he works in a hospital that exists in the lens of Lanthimos’s camera as nothing less than a cathedral to science and medicine, an assembly of nave-like hallways, spired lobbies, and MRI altars. Martin comes to collect the price for this luxury and lack of accountability, just as Aeschylus, ultimately, made Agamemnon pay for far more than the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Agamemnon is a part of the house of Atreus, which has been cursed, for reasons including but not limited to the murder and consumption of children, rape and incest, and, uh, hiding your best lamb. Aegisthus is, dizzyingly, the offspring of a father and his daughter, as well as Agamemnon’s cousin. You don’t have to go far to find the rot.

In Aeschylus, the house of Atreus comes to stand in for the excesses and arrogance of humanity in the face of the gods, each other, and their offspring. By The Eumenides, the curse has been broken through the efforts of Athena and Apollo, who help transition mankind from an age of blood-for-blood to one of trial and the rule of law. By the end of Sacred Deer, on the other hand, Steven, Anna, and their daughter Kim — son Bob having drawn the short straw in the form on a bullet from the blinded, spinning Steven — are sitting in the same diner that we’ve seen them in throughout the film, eating the same unhealthy American food, while Martin looms nearby. The only change is that Steven and Anna are allowed to continue living their bourgeois lives, while their daughter lusts after the scourge of the family, the godlike Martin.

If the world of Aeschylus was one defined by retribution, then the world of Lanthimos is one defined by guilt: We’re complicit in far more than we’re willing to admit, and certainly more than we understand. The Murphy family may be a heightened example, but their sins are no different from that of America as a whole, which has taken countless lives in pursuit of its pleasure and progress, and rarely with any atonement. There’s a curse on our father’s house, Lanthimos seems to be saying, and it isn’t done with us yet.

How The Killing of a Sacred Deer Got Its Unusual Title