Watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the most recent movie by director and weird-master Yorgos Lanthimos, made me think of Kurt Andersen’s book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.
The movie is about a cardiologist who botches an operation because he’s drunk during surgery, and his subsequent relationship with Martin, the psychologically ill son of the patient he accidentally killed. Martin has figured out, somehow, that the doctor’s recklessness is what killed his dad. The real trouble, though, is that the aggrieved teenager also manages – again, it’s not clear how – to get the doctor’s family sick as revenge. The boy tells the doctor his whole brood is going to die off one by one, unless the doctor himself kills one of them, the titular sacred deer. Martin even predicts the bizarre symptoms that will manifest, and in what order.
It’s a creepy conversation, but easy for the doctor to shrug off, until the first of these symptoms – paralysis of the legs – afflicts both his children. The medical community is baffled. Numerous tests are run. All inconclusive as to the cause. Here the movie takes an interesting turn: instead of telling the team of doctors about Martin’s threats against him, instead of explaining how the son of the patient he killed predicted the paralysis, and which symptoms will come next, the father gives up on scientific treatment. He takes his paralyzed son and daughter home from the hospital to rest at his sprawling estate.
He and his wife haven’t abandoned hope entirely. They kidnap Martin and imprison him in their basement. You’d expect them to torture Martin into disclosing the scientific root of the malady. But that doesn’t happen. In fact they never ask, even as their children start bleeding from the eyes – just as Martin said would happen. Rather, the parents make symbolic offerings to the tied up teen, going so far as to kiss his bare feet, beseeching him to work his magical wonders to cure the inexplicable disease. They’ve stopped trying to discern the natural cause, we now understand, because they no longer believe in one. They see worshipping this mentally ill child, praying for him to deliver an act of benign divinity, as a more effective solution than gathering medical clues and working with doctors to help nail down a proper diagnosis.
According to the director Lanthimos, the story is a reprisal of a Euripides story, but it’s also a good fictional example of Andersen’s Fantasyland. The opening section of Andersen's book, a non-fictional commentary on American cultural life, is all about the first waves of Europeans who came to this country, how nuts anyone had to be to trade the relative stability of their old lives in Europe for the huge risk of building something new overseas in the great unknown. “They were over-the-top magical thinkers but also prolific readers and writers. They were excruciatingly rational fantasists who regarded theology as an elaborate scientific endeavor. They were whacked-out visionaries but also ambitious bourgeois doers, accomplished managers and owners and makers.”
Andersen quotes another historian who’s speculated that many Americans today are so prone to believing in nonsense because we’ve been ‘shaped by the fact there was a kind of natural selection here of those people who were willing to believe’ the propagandistic claims that Europeans could get rich quick in 17th century America. A great number, perhaps even a majority of those who made the journey across the Atlantic were reckless fanatics, and many of us descend from them. Cotton Mather and Ann Hutchinson can be held up as early products of this natural selection: “mystical visionaries, consumed by the Bible but also by the totally visionary experience of holiness.”
The family in The Killing of a Sacred Dear is a quintessentially American family, for how they choose to revere their tormenter's Godlike powers instead of pursuing a grounded, objective version of the truth. Andersen's point about early Americans also applies to the parents in the movie: their “perceptions and beliefs were true because they were theirs and because they felt them so thoroughly to be true.” Like Mather and Hutchinson, the parents, a heart surgeon and ophthalmologist, are highly educated yet crave more than anything the excitement of experiencing blind faith and miracles. It leads the father to comply with the demand of his psychotic nemesis, Martin. In a state of religious rapture, he sacrifices his own son, shooting him in the neck to save the rest of his family, proving Andersen’s point that America is “a deliriously happy and nightmarishly scary place.”