The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017) is an inscrutable psycho-drama, following a cursed family through clinical upper-class houses and hospital rooms. It has a monumental formality, somewhere between brutalist architecture and a contemporary opera. The atonal soundtrack echoes this too, a confluence of pre-existing post-modern and classical pieces reminiscent of The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980), another film which traces the decay of a family unit. Although Sacred Deer is frequently absurdist, the score is very serious, yet the film’s most striking musical scene is diegetic, vulnerably human and foregrounded in pop music.
As a present-day restaging of ancient Greek myth, a young man named Martin (Barry Keoghan) leverages himself into the lives of Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) and his family, before inexplicably hexing them as an act of revenge. Martin is so startlingly awkward that he could easily be a character on Pen15 (2019-2020), but Steven’s pre-teen daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) finds herself drawn to him, and on their first meeting attempts to win him over.
Leaning against a tree, she sheepishly begins singing an Ellie Goulding song without any kind of backing track. The camera moves out slowly as Martin sits and watches on the grass, and Kim is enveloped by the great and uncaring expanse of nature. There’s no score, only her small voice against the ambient hum of crickets, wind, and cars in the distance, building a sparseness that fills the space with deafening emptiness.
The song, “Burn”, describes living in a carefree world, partying so hard and so outside of responsibility that you essentially will the end of days into being. There’s one line which describes this assured recklessness, feeling so untouchable and massive that you can be seen “from outer-space”. This total belief in one’s self-importance speaks to the privileged class that Lanthimos undermines in so much of his cinema. Sung by a solitary teenager in the suburbs, its tone of club ecstasy feels laughable. As her small body is even smaller against the tree, the words she sings feel like they falter pathetically into the air around her.
If The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about the empty transactions of contemporary American living, Ellie Goulding’s words represent this meaninglessness against the unknowable chaos of nature. The tree’s branches curl out in impossible twirls. The song is memorable not for its ability to sweep the audience up in a moment of rhythm and energy, but for isolating them further.