By Andrew Harwood
A light shines upon Hamlet as he spears King Claudius with his sword. The two fall, side by side, Claudius dead. Slowly dying, Hamlet famously utters to Horatio: “I’m dying.”
Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is one of the greatest tragedies ever written. That said, tragedy itself is one of the greatest and most classic conceptions of genre — even more so, entertainment itself — next to comedy. As defined by Aristotle in “Poetics,” tragedy is “a form of drama exciting the emotions of pity and fear.” Including the imitation of an action, the purgation of emotions, an overall serious manner and completeness, Aristotle carefully sets forth his criteria for an “ideal tragedy.”
Given the history of tragedy, mainly in the context of novels plays, how exactly can tragedy be related to film? Well, very easily.
Under Aristotle’s criteria, a film must be a drama if it arouses both fear and pity. In addition, as with all tragedies, the film needs to have a bitter and tragic ending caused by the protagonist.
Right off the bat, it can be noted that tragic films are not for the kind of heart; as a matter of fact, they may be for the sadist. Regardless, people loathe tragedy, moreso celebrate it.
Some great examples of tragic films are “The Sacrifice,” “Titanic,” “The Mist,” “Schindler’s List,” “Throne of Blood” and, our film for the week, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”
Co-written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” tells the story of a cardiovascular surgeon played by Colin Farrell, who forms a relationship with the son of a former patient. After his family falls mysteriously ill, the doctor realizes his relationship with the teenage boy is more personal than it seemed.
I don’t want to delve too deep into the plot of the film (given that I never want to spoil a film for my readers), so as ambiguous — and hopefully intriguing — as the plot sounds, it stands.
The greatest feature of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” aside from the top-notch acting and deeply original script, is perhaps its score. It’s haunting, teasing, charming and blaring all at once. It’s in your face, then in the background, reminding you of the danger that could be lurking on or off screen.
But again, what makes a good tragedy is the action and the arousal of fear and pity. As an audience, we witness the surgeon and his family deteriorate after this imposition of the ex-patient’s son. It’s slow and gradual, as if it’s something personal. We question what we see on screen, but at the same time, accept it given what we have learned about the surgeon and his family. We fear for him and for his family’s lives, while we pity their current state.
At the same time, as disturbingly immersive as “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is, it also embraces deadpan humor as if to remind the viewer of the versatility and dynamics of human nature. A family, mysteriously dying, now tasked with an unbearable choice of sacrifice, competes within the family to be saved. The irony that is pleasing one’s parent to not be killed is quite literally the epitome of dark humor.
Complete with beautiful imagery and haunting performances from Barry Keoghan and Nicole Kidman, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a disturbingly authentic piece of tragic cinema.