The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) Ending Explained – Could Steven have escaped Martin’s punishment?

The Killing of a Sacred Deer Plot Summary

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a 2017 film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, writer and director, well known for his unique brand of absurdist cinema. It is a quiet tragedy, unsettling in nature, and hovers on the edges of the absurd. The film is a modern take on the Greek tragedy of ‘The Sacrifice of Iphigenia’, a warped version of a scary story, a cautionary tale in which a seemingly perfect family comes up against an inexplicable force of darkness.

Colin Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy, a successful surgeon, leading a seemingly happy life with wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and children, daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and son Bob (Sunny Suljic) in a spotless household. That is, till a young teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan) enters their life and casts an insidious shadow on the good doctor and his family.

How does Martin get roped in with the Murphys?

Martin is a shy, young teenager, seemingly naïve and innocent, and extremely polite and well-mannered. Steven Murphy takes Martin under his wing, looking out for him, and even helping him with gifts and money from time to time. And Martin spares no effort to acknowledge his benefactor’s generosity.

When Steven invites Martin to visit his home, the young lad makes a good first impression on the family. The lady of the house, Anna feels quite affectionate towards the young boy, especially when he mentions that he lives alone with his widowed mother in a not-so-developed neighbourhood. Martin also befriends the children and the underage Kim develops a crush on him while hanging out with him.

Why does Steven take Martin under his wing?

Initially, when Martin visits Steven at the hospital, the latter introduces the boy to his anaesthesiologist friend, Dr. Mathew Williams (Bill Camp) as his daughter’s schoolmate, saying things like he’d met Martin’s parents at the mall, and that Martin is visiting him because he wants to become a cardiologist, which is all pure fabrication.

It seems a bit odd that Steven would make up some false story about Martin. It’s as if he’s trying to hide something. The reality is that Martin’s father (who had a healthy lifestyle), died on the operating table under Dr. Steven Murphy’s watch. The doctor is plagued by the guilt of losing his patient and tries to make up for it by being kind and generous to his son, young Martin.

Why does Steven start to avoid Martin?

Martin is the epitome of a well-bred, well-mannered fatherless boy, who almost idolizes Steven, and looks upon him as a father figure. However, there is another side to Martin that starts to make Steven a bit uneasy. Martin may appear immature, but his eyes belie a cunning and maturity, beyond his years.

It seems that Martin has developed a fondness for the doctor to such an extent that Steven begins to feel that the boy is intruding into his personal space — incessant calls, landing up at Steven’s hospital unannounced, insisting on meeting up.

It starts to feel like Martin is stalking him. In fact, it’s as if the boy has got some hold over him, and Steven finds himself unable to refuse Martin’s requests, however, callow they may seem. At first, the good-natured doctor gives in to the lad’s requests and humours him, either out of politeness or genuine affection.

However, at one point, Martin invites Steven home to meet his mother (Alicia Silverstone) and then leaves them to be together alone. Late in the night, Martin’s mother tries to seduce Steven. A flabbergasted Steven, mumbles an excuse and runs off.

The next day, Martin barges into Steven’s hospital and insists that he has a major ‘heartache’ (obviously connected to his mother’s embarrassing fiasco). The doctor gives Martin a series of medical tests and pronounces that he is fit as a fiddle. The lad goes on to talk about hirsuteness and then asks Steven to show him his body hair, and strangely, the senior man, albeit reluctantly, complies. 

Then Martin proceeds to inform Steven that his widowed mother likes him, that she’s got a beautiful body and that they’d make a great couple. By this time, Steven realizes that the boy has crossed his limits. He proclaims that he’s happily married with a beautiful family and it’s ludicrous for Martin to try and set him up with his mother. And from thereon, Steven starts to ignore Martin’s calls.

How does Martin take revenge?

Soon after, Steven finds himself and his family in a calamitous situation. Bob, his son turns immobile and is unable to walk. The parents rush the boy to the hospital, where a battery of tests turn out inconclusive, and medical experts are unable to diagnose the problem.

While Steven is grappling with his son’s mysterious ailment, Martin meets up with him, and informs the doctor, that since he is responsible for his father’s death, he has to pay for it by taking the life of one of his own family members or they will all die. His wife and kids will, one by one, suffer paralysis, loss of appetite, bleeding from the eyes, and death; unless Steven chooses to sacrifice one of them.

Thereafter, true to Martin’s prophesy, Kim, the daughter collapses and she too is hospitalized, and the entire medical fraternity is left scratching their heads on the cause of these strange ailments.

What is Steven’s dark secret?

When Steven’s wife, Anna learns that Martin is the cause for their woe, she confronts Steven, who tells her that he is not to blame, since it’s the anaesthesiologist who is mostly responsible for operating table deaths.

Anna then manages to pry out information about the surgery from the anaesthesiologist, Matthew (in exchange for a sexual favour). Matthew reveals that it is the surgeon and not the anaesthesiologist who is responsible for the surgery — Steven had been drinking that day.

What is the significance of the title of the film?

‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ is inspired by an ancient Greek tragedy, ‘Iphigenia in Aulis’ by Euripides. In this myth, King Agamemnon (the same king from Homer’s Iliad) offends the goddess Artemis by killing one of her sacred deer. In retaliation, Artemis impedes Agamemnon’s military expedition to invade Troy. The King learns that the only way to atone for his folly and appease the Goddess is to sacrifice his beloved daughter Iphigenia.

The movie is about revenge and cosmic justice and explores the vagaries of fate and the results of a person’s karma. Iphigenia’s innocence is mirrored in the Murphy children and their mother, who have to suffer the consequence of the actions of the ‘Head of the House’ and are forced to participate in a perverse variant of Russian roulette.

Could Steven have escaped Martin’s punishment?

A good man has to pay for his folly by sacrificing one of his loved ones. But there is more. The fact that Dr. Steven is responsible for the botched surgery is debatable. We only have Matthew’s word for it. And Matthew is no saint. He’s as grey as they come. He doesn’t hesitate to sexually exploit a person in trouble, never mind if she’s a family friend.

It also questions our modern standards of friendship and respectability. And for all we know, Matthew could be saying things to protect himself. In fact, Steven tells Anna that he’d just had a small drink and that had nothing to do with the outcome.

The difference between the two doctors is that Matthew, a rogue, firmly believes that he’s blameless. Steven, on the other hand, being a good human being, subconsciously harbours pangs of guilt and tries to make up for it by being kind to Martin. Steven’s efforts to spin lies about Martin to others or buy gifts for the boy, expose the guilt he harbours deep within his soul. Steven is guilty because he (subconsciously) believes it.

If, on the other hand, Steven believed himself to be blameless and kept his distance from Martin, chances are, that his family wouldn’t be afflicted. Or even if they did die under mysterious circumstances, sure it would be sad, but Steven would have been spared the trauma of having to kill one of his loved ones. A curse is pointless in the world the movie is set in, if one doesn’t know anything about it. People die every day. It’d just be another banal statistic.

Is there an alternate universe?

The basic premise of the movie is that it is metaphorical, a form of magic realism. The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems to be set in the ‘real world’, unlike Lanthimos’ The Lobster which is set in a heightened dystopian ambience, yet its basic plot is bizarre and unreal. There is a certain artificiality in the way the characters speak and behave – offbeat dialogues, coupled with bizarre emotional reactions.

The film is certainly not a conventional narrative. To begin with, Bob and Kim’s affliction almost seems like some supernatural curse. The film doesn’t bother to explain the mysterious affliction; whether there’s some medical reason behind it (for eg. – Martin poisoning the Murphys), or if there’s any magic involved.

And it’s a bit odd that the finest minds of the American medical world cannot explain this mysterious affliction. However, when a paralyzed Kim gets a phone call from Martin, she manages to walk up to the window, which is again inexplicable.

And finally, when Dr. Steven kills his son, Bob, the balance of the universe has been restored and all is hunky dory. And nowhere in this bloody game of revenge are the cops or the legal system anywhere to be seen. Suffice to say, the movie is set in a universe with its own set of rules and logic.

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