Firstborn (Latvian title “Pirmdzimtais”) was released in 2017 to moderate success – winning awards for Best Actor, Best Makeup and Best Score at the Latvian National Film Festival – and is as relevant now as it was when it first screened.
Director Aik Karapetian offers a slow-burning film that is filled with imagery and metaphors of what it means to be a man, and what one must to do to “be a man”, in a manner that is not too preachy, or with an overt political message.
The basic premise concerns what happens to young couple Francis and Katrina – played by Kaspars Znotins and Maija Doveika respectively – when they are mugged one evening. The intellectual, but pacifist husband feebly fails to protect his wife, and the compulsion to take revenge in order to satisfy not only his wife, but his own masculine reputation drives the plot.
Now with the pleasantries out of the way, let us take a dive into what makes this story an unpolished gem.
Firstborn is primarily a psychological thriller, but the horror elements are there – blood is spilt, the violence is ghastly in nature, and there is an unsettling, tense tone that pervades throughout the entire film. The tension never lets up – it’s like that nagging concern which continues to eat at you, and is not unlike the thoughts that torment Francis. From the very first scene, you can see that Francis is passive-aggressive, clearly educated, shows signs of infirmness and is just a frustrating person overall, but it works so well throughout the film. You constantly want to yell at his character’s weakness and this translates into one of the film’s strengths.
The greatest selling point of the film happens in the interactions between Francis and Katrina. Casting chose wisely as the two leads have such excellent chemistry onscreen. They truly make you believe their marriage is held together by a thin facade, with seething resentment just barely beneath the surface.
The most obvious fear alluded to in the movie is that of cuckoldry, or to being labeled a “cuckold”; the word traditionally refers to the emotional investment that a male imparts in offspring that is not his own. In a contemporary sense, it commonly refers to when a woman has sex with other men behind her partner’s back, a humiliating act of emasculation – it strongly implies that the man is weak and unable to fend for what is his or himself. This strikes an intimately emotional chord that is subconsciously relatable to any male in the audience, and provides much gravitas for the story.
Several scenes have added layers of strong colour tones, and they tend to be direct: red for violence, blue for quiet, unsettling dream-like sequences that offer subtext, whilst there are the rare green-tinted scenes that are for pacing.
The sound and music is on song, especially when the audio cues of the fateful night are repeated in a flashback that not only enhance the mood, but bring the repressed terror back.
There are moments in which protracted scenes play with no dialogue – indicating the passage of time – only to be broken up by nightmarish instances that shock; or scenes that subversively play with imagery to imply what lies in the subconscious, like the escalating paranoia and anger that Francis feels with his circumstances. One such scene that fuels the tension is when Katrina casually remarks that a detective is “an old suitor of mine”, then we see Francis waking up to his wife making breakfast for the ex-boyfriend – whilst wearing a very visible smile. Francis is often seen quietly skulking about in the background, a spectator in his own life.
However, there are aspects of the film that work against it, and make it apparent that the script could have benefited from more polish to even out the pacing and plot issues, which can be disorientating or otherwise confusing.
One example is how Francis immediately finds the criminal, with no explanation given other than assuming he obtained the information off-screen – subtext is a powerful story-telling device but unless it’s made apparent, you lose immersion. Another is a stranger contacting Francis to creepily state that he knows what he has done with no sense of how it jars the viewer’s perception and how this fits into the story other than to drive the main character’s urgency of purpose.
Half-way through you can’t even consider the metaphorical creature in the bushes as a serious story element because you’re too busy trying to connect all narrative threads.
The little nuances and subtexts are what make Firstborn, starting with the lingering looks during the opening, all the way to the contentious “end”.
This Latvian thriller must be commended (and seen) for its outstanding individual parts, rather than its whole. If you’re looking for a film with subtle and less than subtle cues, along with far too many metaphors, then Firstborn will tickle your primitive brain until the final shot.