The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Iphigenia at Aulis: a microcosm for the rise of individualism

As a modern adaptation of the Euripidean play, Yorgos Lanthimos’ second English-language film shares the core premise of an accidental killing that requires retribution. Yet his incorporation of plot differences in the film reflect the cultural differences that exist between the modern world and Ancient Greece. The similar yet separate presentations of the two male protagonists (Agamemnon in Iphigenia and Steven in The Killing…) are central to this assessment. While both play an active role in the sacrifice of their child and both plots follow a similar trail, only in The Killing… does the audience view the male lead as unforgivable. A focus on the distinct motivations of the characters reveals how the incentives of figures of authority have changed, exposing how modern populist figures act only for themselves with no sense of duty. By asking why only Steven is seen to be reprehensible at the end, we can fully understand the cultural differences that influence the two pieces of literature.

Moral corruption is a central element of both tragedies

Moral corruption is a central element of both tragedies. In the prologue of Iphigenia, Agamemnon tells us that Artemis has affected the wind, preventing the ships from sailing to Troy. Crucially, however, he omits the fact that it was his accidental killing of Artemis’ sacred deer that led to this punishment. A similar theme of secrecy and guilt is evident in the film. Steven lies to his wife about the death of our antagonist Martin’s father, informing her that his death was the result of a car accident; we later learn he in fact died on a drunken Steven’s operating table. Although both protagonists are ultimately responsible for the events that ensue, Steven’s act of gross negligence manslaughter and his subsequent silence evoke greater criticism from a modern audience than Agamemnon’s killing of the deer to the Greek audience.

Steven’s motivations are presented as deplorable. Despite the identical conflicts of his family and his profession, the decisions Steven makes are more selfish to a modern audience than those of Agamemnon to an Ancient Greek audience. Driven by the refusal to accept his own faults, Steven’s narcissism permeates through his ordinarily methodical persona. He is aware of the retribution he must accept but refuses to acknowledge it, in direct contrast to Agamemnon. In the play, Agamemnon immediately recognises and laments the necessity of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, due to Fate, and the Chorus demonstrates the pity the audience feels for his conflict of interest. Agamemnon accepts that a sacrifice is a necessary retribution to Artemis. Steven’s hubris causes him to instead attack Martin, who is acting as the god of his punishment, instead of addressing his own retribution. In wasting this time, he forces his children to suffer both the horrors of each cursed stage, as well the fear of their imminent death.

Agamemnon’s sense of duty and acceptance of his retribution make his a sympathetic character to a modern audience

Though it could be argued that Agamemnon’s dishonesty is also immoral, his attempt at deception could be regarded as a way of saving his daughter the knowledge of her imminent – yet necessary – death. This deceitfulness could, therefore, be regarded as a kindness; it reflects a rejection of individual interest and a means of trying to cause minimal distress to his daughter, whilst fulfilling his obligation. Iphigenia’s acceptance of her fate reflects this idea of necessity and cements Agamemnon as both duty-bound and pitiable – reflective of the attitudes of a contemporary Greek audience.

Steven, meanwhile, rejects any sort of responsibility; his pride makes him unable to acknowledge his own faults. Motivated by the protection of his professional reputation, Steven is shown to be selfish and arrogant, driven only by his individual needs, which ultimately make him less forgivable than Agamemnon. Although it could be argued that it is only the societal differences make Agamemnon seem more forgivable, his sense of duty and acceptance of his retribution also make him a sympathetic character to a modern audience.

The film offers a warning against individualism of notable Western leaders in our age of populism

Through the contrasting endings, the difference in societal attitudes is clear. Agamemnon’s patriotic rhetoric convinces Iphigenia that her sacrifice was necessary for the good of the people, reflecting the societal attitudes of the time. Whilst a modern audience would continue to regard his decision to sacrifice his child as abhorrent, it must be remembered that Agamemnon’s actions are justified in Ancient Greek society which leads to his forgiveness. This is made manifest in Iphigenia’s miraculous escape from death and her ascension to the gods.

By contrast, Lanthimos’ ending is entirely unforgiving. Whereas Iphigenia was able to escape, Steven’s youngest and the most innocent, Bob, is shot by his father as he shoots randomly to ensure the survival of the other two. The inhumanity of the murder is Lanthimos’ brutal message for his brutal cautionary tale. The lack of forgiveness shown by the film’s “deity,” Martin, is demonstrative of the way in which society has changed. Steven was faced with the same choice and made the same decision as Agamemnon yet a modern audience cannot forgive him in the way the Greeks could.

One could even view Steven’s unforgivable motivations and actions as microcosmic of the cutthroat, arguably dangerous, political climate in which populist leaders are currently thriving. Steven’s selfishness and individualism can be recognised as a reflection of Western society’s focus on the individual over the nation, in contrast to Agamemnon’s feeling of duty. Steven’s selfish rejection of retribution leads to him paying a bigger sacrifice. The film offers a warning against the individualism of notable Western leaders in our age of populism and demonstrates the virtues of a selfless attitude toward the nation as a whole, made manifest through Agamemnon.

Told with clear elements of the horror genre – a fact that is itself indicative of a modern view of a tragedy – Lanthimos elicits feelings of revulsion and anger from his audience towards Steven. In contrast, Agamemnon, whose actions in their intent differ little from Steven’s, is pitied by his contemporary audience for his decision. Lanthimos, with his adaptation, offers a chilling caution for the psyche of figures of authority and the differences culminate in the depiction of the protagonists, reflecting the shift in cultural mindset over the centuries. Agamemnon is forgiven for his role in Iphigenia’s sacrifice. Steven is despised his role in Bob’s murder.


Featured image by Andrey Giljov, available on Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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