‘I don’t know what it means to be complicit,’ said Ivanka Trump in April of this year – then, doubling down, she shrugged on CBS: ‘If being complicit is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit.’ This is not, quite obviously, what ‘to be complicit’ means. One might just as well say: ‘if a murderer is somebody who hand-rears baby animals, then I’m a murderer,’ or: ‘if a thief is somebody who wants the best for everyone involved, then I’m a thief.’ The definition, just in case Ivanka has not checked it since, is ‘helping to commit a crime, or do wrong.’
In the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), a wealthy, macho family man and surgeon allows his own incompetence to wreck everything, operating on a man’s heart while he’s drunk. The patient dies. In his refusal to accept responsibility, or to apologize, the surgeon alienates and brings suffering on his family. He’s complicit; they’re collateral. He’s a coward, a boor, and bullish, and is still alive and more or less undamaged by the time the credits roll. Ivanka might find this an archetype that’s easier to define than something slippery like the word ‘complicit’ – she might call it ‘Daddy.’ We might call it ‘President,’ or ‘Weinstein,’ or another of the dark array of synonyms afforded to us this year. We might call it, simply, ‘Privileged White Man.’
The surgeon – Steven, played by Colin Farrell – has an at-first unexplained relationship with a teenager called Martin. Martin has a doughy kid’s face, and an air of menace. It soon transpires that his father was the patient Steven killed, and that the boy is looking first for a replacement, then for revenge. If the cardiologist does not kill one of his own family as repayment, Martin tells him, they will all be cursed. Paralysis comes first, and then starvation; then they weep blood, then they die. Given time to ask a question, Steven does not bother asking if it’s possible to sacrifice himself. Instead, the clock starts ticking like a Rolex, keeping perfectly expensive and excruciating time.
The phrase ‘sins of the father’ is so appropriate to this film that it appears in nearly every review. Steven’s children, paralyzed and starving, drag themselves around the house like half-dead dogs for maybe one-third of the running time. They squabble over who might get whose iPod when the other ends up killed. Their father only vacillates and roars, and shifts the blame. Their mother, named Anna, is played by Nicole Kidman. She’s chilled and chic, a bottle-blonde and secretly an uptight, opaque nightmare with a fractured core; she’s never been more eerie, or more typecast. (It is harder to imagine Julianne Moore squaring the idea of murdering her son by saying ‘we can always have more children,’ or to picture someone like Kate Winslet playing dead for ‘general anesthetic’ sex – froideur, if not necessarily frigidity, is Kidman’s stock-in-trade.)
The family’s spotless home is so beige that it makes me wonder if a house can be Caucasian. Like the set in Michael Haneke’s two versions of his sometimes-funny, ugly, sadomodernist experiment-cum-movie Funny Games (1997/2007), it signifies and signifies. In the 2007 US remake of Funny Games, wrote critic Jim Emerson, the family: ‘are upper-class ciphers … The attention paid to the details of their conspicuous consumption may or may not express … that [they] somehow deserve to be humiliated, tormented and killed for exhibiting Eurocentric yuppie tastes.’ In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the family talks about expecting the delivery of a new piano. They indulge their tone-deaf daughter’s dreams of growing up to be a singer. When a pristine Kidman tells her children – so beatifically the audience can’t help but laugh – ‘we all have lovely hair,’ it seems that Lanthimos is playing Funny Games, too. They are lovely; and their home is lovely; and their wealth is, we imagine, lovely. When unlovely things begin to happen to them, it is only human nature to think cruel, unlovely thoughts.
To see the privileged waste away to nothing feels at best like justice, and at worst like grim catharsis. In remaking his original Funny Games, but with two ‘known’ A-list actors, Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, Haneke took what had already looked like a totally unnecessary exercise in pain, and made it doubly dead-ended, doubly nihilistic, and at least twice as perverse. The pointlessness of Haneke’s destruction is where his and Lanthimos’s films diverge: in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, there is a cause, a confirmation of the father figure’s awfulness. In Funny Games, our only certainty about the family is their smugness, their bland, bourgeois style.
In Haneke’s film, when a pair of strangers dressed in tennis whites invade the family’s summer home and torture them, the crime is ultimately senseless, and an exercise in self-reproach and self-examination – we are being punished for complicity, for ‘helping to do wrong’ by being entertained. Nobody is spared; therefore no family member’s fate is ‘worse’ or ‘better’ than another’s, and the carnage is entirely orchestrated for the benefit of the spectator. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Martin’s punishment of Steven’s family, just as mythic and unknowable as it is brutal, is instead reflective of the way that real-world payback often works, despite its magic unreality.
The truth is that it’s rarely bourgeois daddy-men with god complexes that are punished, but their charges and subordinates: wives, children, patients, underlings, the poor, the under-amplified and generally ignored. The film’s portrayal of the self-interested surgeon should ring bells for anyone who’s read the news this last year. The Killing of a Sacred Deer begins, like Funny Games, with a blast of opera: unlike Funny Games, it also opens on a close-up of a chest cavity mid-surgery, a naked heart. There is a human – if not humane – truth about the malice of inaction beating at its core.
Main image: Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, 2017, film still. Courtesy: Hanway Films