First They Killed My Father: In recent years, Angelina Jolie's directorial debut career has been marked by films that, upon announcement, seemed like possible Oscar candidates only for them wind up being middling efforts from a director who still did not have a clear vision. With First They Killed My Father, Jolie is finally starting to get some positive buzz for this latest Netflix release, though in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Entirely in Cambodian, First They Killed My Father tells the true story of Luong Ung. A Cambodian woman who was a young girl during the Cambodian genocide under the cruel dictatorship of Pol Pot. Ung wrote First They Killed My Father as a first-hand account of her experiences during the genocide. As a human rights activist and adoptive mother to a Cambodian son, it is hard not to see this an intensely personal work for Jolie. However, despite these passionate touches, First They Killed My Father hardly shows much improvement upon Jolie's prior directorial efforts. Too muddled and uncertain of what it wants to be, First They Killed My Father is a film about genocide that hardly ever truly feels a film about genocide.
Odd lack of violence until the end. This feeling is largely contributed by the abject lack of violence throughout the film. While the film's climax and third act are littered with bloody images of carnage, torn off limbs, babies exploding on landmines with their mothers, and more, the film rarely communicates the violence until this point. Even then, it comes as a result of war violence as the people flee into the minefield to escape a conflict between the two opposing sides fighting over Cambodia. With many of the deaths of the Cambodian genocide coming as a result of silent executions, starvation, or forced labor camps, these civilian casualties are really not the focus of the film. Though powerful in its imagery at the end and truly startling to see it through the eyes of a young girl, these violent images do not gel with the rest of the film. Rather, until this point, it is hard to tell that the Khumar Rogue are violent at all. The film neglects to show Luong's own father be killed (in spite of the title) leaving it instead to a dream sequence. It never shows others being executed, nor does it allow the audience to hear it either. We never see people starve. Rather the film just shows the lack of food and people trying to steal and hide food from the guards. The film never shows the pain of these forced labor camps either, opting instead for showing them work with cruel "masters" presiding over them but, again, no deaths. For events so horrific, tragic, and graphic, First They Killed My Father appears squeamish to ever actually pull the trigger. Instead, it handles the events with kid gloves and seems uninterested in ever displaying the true horror and terror of the situation. Though the film could have been a gut punch with emotional and graphic horror throughout, it seems more content to focus on what lead people to be killed instead of showing them be killed.
Lackluster characters. This would have been alright had Jolie dedicated more time to really crafting great characters for the audience to experience the genocide through. However, aside from Luong, nobody is really memorable. She loses her father, mother, and some siblings along the way, but we never feel the pain as the film never takes the time to truly develop them in a meaningful fashion. The film, in lacking much violence until the end, could argue that it was trying to focus on the lives and the faces of those lost instead of showing how they die as the audience can figure that out for themselves. However, this would be plainly untrue. There are no characters worth hanging onto and the film seems more obsessed with the faces of those committing the atrocities than those dying. Jolie focuses mainly on Luong's family, likely due to it being her recounting, but loses sight of the others lost to this tragedy. Rather, it is often encapsulated in rage and terror as they confront their attackers or run away. For a film about a genocide, this lack of characters and the aforementioned lack of horror (again, until the end of the film) renders it one that feels very formulaic and scientific, rather than emotional and profound. It seems to understand the events quite well and what it occurred, but never allows us to truly feel the events. It has all of the details and actions that occurred but lacks the emotion.
Horror and violence at the end. The only part of the film to truly strike a chord in the fashion that Jolie likely intends comes throughout the final half hour. Jarringly violent, horrifying, and all shown through the frantic eyes of a young girl, the village that has now become a battlefield surrounded by a minefield is the place of absolute horror. Shocking and truly the area of the film where Jolie manages to create great pathos and tension, this climax is the one that the film greatly deserved. Depriving the rest of the film with tension or non-manipulated emotional sequences, this finale sequence is one that firmly plants the audience at the edge of their seat. With the perfect musical accompaniment for the moment, augmented by ringing in the ears of the young Luong, First They Killed My Father's final half-hour may honestly be one of the best stretches of a film in recent months. Pulse-pounding and terrifying to watch, the sequence may come a little too late and is too brief to truly save the film from being overly middling, but it shows exactly what the film should have been throughout. Rather than focusing on the regime taking control of Cambodia, the film should have focused on the panic, the horror, and gruesomeness. It is in there that First They Killed My Father is able to properly communicate the horror of what was occurring in Cambodia and the desperation that was created.
Powerful moment with Ma. In saying that, however, the film does reach an emotional crescendo not too long before the bloody final act. Gathering her children all around her, Luong's mother opts to send the kids away in opposite directions to increase the likelihood of them surviving. Believing them to be safer without her, this moment demonstrates perfectly the emotional desperation of the Cambodian people. Perhaps no act greater shows this than a mother sending her kids off with nothing but photos and a final gift from her and their father, and yet it is one Luong's mother had to make. Powerful, beautifully acted, and never as manipulative as it could have been in lesser hands, Jolie is able to shoot the scene with raw, authentic emotion. It never feels scripted or for the benefit of the emotional resonance of the film, rather just plainly re-enacting what had occurred between Luong and her mother the last time she saw her. While, again, the rest of the film seems to lack this same emotional thread when violence is not on-screen, this scene stands as an exception to that belief. It is the perfect encapsulation of the feeling of the people of Cambodia as they faced the brutality of the regime and one that will stick with viewers long after the film ends.
Awkward handling of emotion. Though the scene with Ma is one that is rather powerful, the same cannot be said for how the film deals with the titular Father. Likely killed via execution, the film never actually shows Luong's father dying. Given that it is based on a first-hand account, this can be understandable and could have been rather ominous if it had stuck to just showing him walk away with the guards as Luong calls out to him in vain. Unfortunately, Jolie cannot help but turn the scene into overly stylized drivel. Shrouding his face with a lens flare as he says goodbye to Luong, the film later cuts back to Luong having a dream about him being executed with the shot being rather jumpy, fractured, and constantly shrouded in a dreamy filter. Later, as Luong sees a man on the ground being beaten by villagers due to him being exposed as a soldier from the oppressive regime in control, the film returns to this jarring use of style. Visualizing the man as her father, Jolie frantically cuts and shakes the camera to communicate the distressing nature of this vision. Unfortunately, both the prior use and the second use of this overly stylized representation of her father's death is far too disconnected from true emotion. Rather, it feels incredibly Hollywoodized, glamorized, and scripted. Compared to the sensitive handling of her final goodbyes with her mother, First They Killed My Father seems to have no idea how to handle the death of Luong's father as she did not see it first hand. Resorting to cheap tricks, dream sequences, and hallucinations, to try to simulate the experience, the film winds up selling the moment quite short and, given that it is the title of the film, this is largely inexcusable.
Lack of flow and unnecessary focus on propaganda tactics of the regime. In conjunction with the poor handling of emotion, the film often seems to have no idea how to handle emotion and thus often strikes an awkward flow. Cutting from a scene of the young girls being trained for war, being indoctrinated to the propaganda of the regime in a classroom, and then showing them struggle for food or having to work all day, the film never seems sure of what it wants to focus on. Given that it is intended to raise awareness to the suffering of the Cambodian people, the constantly repeated phrases of "you must have a revolutionary mindset", "Askgar will protect you", "you have no private property", and more as part of the indoctrination seem to be far too much. Not only is it rather one-note, but it is never truly needed. Once is enough for the audience to understand this is an oppressive communist regime, yet the film insists on beating us over the head with this information. The unfortunate side effect is that it often robs screen time from showing the true, authentic human experience and turmoil through the genocide and instead makes it appear to be nothing more than oppressive regime with little, but some, food to go around. In the process, it sells the genocide short by a country mile and underplays the horror of the reality. As a result, it never creates the pathos and authenticity it so desperately requires, which is perhaps the greatest sin a film about genocide can commit. It never feels real and the film refuses to show suffering until the last half hour or so in a last ditch effort to make up for the lack thereof until then. Unfortunately, it does not work.
Brilliant cinematography. Perhaps First They Killed My Father's most distinctive element is its brilliant imagery. With constant Gods-eye view shots of throngs of people walking from the city, nobody walking anymore, or of the battlefield, Jolie seems to rely upon this aerial shot throughout and it is always gorgeous. Likely utilized to communicate the scope of the horror that is unfolding, the images are always brilliantly framed and truly capture the terror of the moment through a beautiful image. Similarly, the image of the village burning bright orange through the trees and close-up at night as young Luong races around calling out the names of her siblings is a truly haunting image, but one that is beautifully captured. Striking and everything an image from this film should be, it really demonstrates Jolie's keen eye for visuals and possible connections between shots. Ending the film with a shot at daytime after the regime has been defeated with the orange poking out of the trees now coming from the orange uniforms of the Monks in Cambodia, Jolie creates a clear parallel between the two shots and one that demonstrates the change in Cambodia. Once a dark, sinister, and burning nation, it becomes one that is bright, tranquil, and entirely peaceful by the end of the film. Quite the transformation to be sure and perfectly demonstrated by two perfectly framed and lit shots. Though just a few examples, it is hard to describe First They Killed My Father as anything less than a visually stunning work. Where her narrative and emotional abilities may fail, Jolie's chief achievement as the director of this film comes via these stunningly beautiful images littered throughout the film.
Never as emotional or affecting as it should be, First They Killed My Father is hardly the Schindler's List or The Pianist of the Cambodian genocide. Instead, it is a film that wants to be both of those and more but falls victim to having been told through the eyes of a bewildered and confused child. Never capturing the true emotion of the events and too disconnected from the horrors, First They Killed My Father is a sanitized telling of events that never truly gains its footing.