First They Killed My Father Review
Every once in awhile there is an artist that tries to be a jack-of-all-trades. We have seen several actors and actresses try to direct movies, write screenplays, produce films, all with varying degrees of good and bad. Angelina Jolie is mostly known as an actress, and the wife of Brad Pitt. But she’s directed a couple films at this point, also with varying degrees of good and bad. I thought “In The Land of Blood and Honey” to be nearly unwatchable dreck. But I thought she made up for it with “Unbroken” a few years ago. One thing is certain, from watching those two films listed above, as well as “First They Killed My Father” which I will be reviewing here in a minute, she is drawn to dark tragedies. She is also drawn to the human side of these tragedies and how the victims become survivors and how they go about pushing through the dark corners and digging at the walls for light.
“First They Killed My Father” is, like most Jolie pictures, about a little girl who gets caught up in an awful situation. The situation in question in this movie is the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Jolie co-wrote the script for the film with Loung Ung, the film is based off of her memoir. Ung was very young, just a child when the communist insurgence gained power in the country of Cambodia. During the regime, run by the tyrant Pol Pot, several people were killed in genocidal murders. If you were suspected of having connections to the old government or with foreign governments, you were put to death. People of different ethnicities, Cambodian Christians, monks…all were killed under the regime. This film in particular follows how Ung’s family was driven from their home, having all of their possessions stripped from them for the greater good of the regime, and forced into labor camps. Ung in particular was trained to be a child soldier at the age of five.
Now I know what you might be thinking, there are already too many movies about there about somebody surviving an impossible situation. We do get a lot of these. Heck, Jolie has already directed three of them. In 2015, Netflix released “Beasts of No Nation,” of the finest motion pictures of that particular year, which was about a child surviving as a child soldier. Some people may also get a riff of “Hotel Rwanda” out of this movie. Rest assured though, besides all three of those movies taking place during a genocidal tragedy, the movies couldn’t be more different. Hotel Rwanda was a bout a hotel manager who was able to swindle the opposing side of his nation, keeping millions alive in his hotel. “Beasts of No Nation” is about how a boy is forced into being a child soldier and how that slowly becomes his life, something he feels no shame in. “First They Killed My Father” is a slow burn, a bird’s eye view of a little girl’s journey from the darkness to the light. We don’t get too many movies like this, where it feels like a big checklist getting checked off, but still being a powerful work of cinema.
Make no mistake about it folks, “First They Killed My Father” is a powerful work of cinema. This is a raw movie, a movie that is built to smear your face and sear your brain with the ugliness of extremist rule in any nation. But the movie doesn’t just deal in pain. I am glad it’s not. It’s easy to get behind a camera and shoot some truly awful footage. There are little glimmers of hope throughout the whole movie. Hope that Ung family will survive this situation, hope even when everyone around them is losing the will to carry on. A five year old girl was forced to put on a front, training to be a child soldier and she needs to pretend like it all matters. It’s a harrowing, mesmerizing experience.
The movie works as well as it does thanks to the incredible work done by Sareum Srey Moch. She is a profound young actress. Even though she’s so young, even though she spends the whole movie speaking Cambodian the whole movie, she is able to convey every emotion possible in order for the audience to buy into this situation. It’s not enough to simply state “Based on a true story” right before your movie starts in order to hook the audience. No, you need to earn that hook. Because of the piercing and provocative work by Moch, this movie definitely earns that hook. The entire cast does excellent, and I would have gladly written down the whole list of actors and actresses in this movie, but you can barely find names anywhere, but man these mystery actors sure do act well.
I have to say now that I truly am interested to see how Angelina Jolie’s directing and writing career expands after this. Will she specialize in hope under tragedy? Or will she branch out into other genres (Apparently, she has made a romantic comedy with her husband.)? I hope she continues to showcase the strength and backbone as a director and writer that she clearly possesses. Sure, she has taken a hit or two, but every writer and director does every once in a blue moon. It’s how artists get up after a hit that truly makes them artists.
FINAL GRADE: A