As a filmmaker, Angelina Jolie is a lucid pragmatist with a talent for dramatizing process, though she’s undermined by a penchant for uplifting platitude. In By the Sea, Jolie discarded this formulaic tendency, though she returns to it in First They Killed My Father in an intriguingly uneven fashion. The film initially misleads us with repetitive, often maudlin close-ups of children in peril only to gradually evolve into a tough, stirringly physicalized and nearly dialogue-free study of war survival as existential lottery.
First They Killed My Father is set in Cambodia in the mid-1970s after the United States lost interest in carpet-bombing the country. Though America’s role in the rise of the Khmer Rouge is debated, Jolie sees us as bearing a brunt of responsibility for the regime’s ascension, particularly in unifying civilian faith in a government that would invoke authoritarian rule as a perversion of communism. The film opens with a montage, accompanied by a pat use of the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” in which President Richard Nixon’s pacifist speeches are contrasted against footage of America attacking a nation that proclaimed neutrality during the Vietnam War. Such egotistical violence leaves a rift in the social fabric of the land weathering the assault—a gap the Khmer Rouge decisively enters.
Even the fiercest antiwar protestors may find the film’s explanation for the Khmer Rouge’s rise to be glib, though causality is ultimately beside the point. First They Killed My Father is less interested in global politics than in offering an intensely experiential tapestry of war and invasion as witnessed by a child, Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch), as the Khmer Rouge sweeps to power and upends the prior authoritarian regime with a wave of enslavement and genocide. Loung’s father (Phoeung Kompheak) was with the prior government’s military police before its fall, putting the family at risk of extermination should anyone in the new establishment discern his identity. A mark of steady integrity, Loung’s father maintains a calm face for Loung and her siblings as they’re interned in a camp and forced to work in fields growing vegetables while subsisting on a shot glass’s worth of gruel.
A potentially thorny irony—that Loung’s once prosperous father might have been an oppressor himself—is of no interest to Jolie, who co-wrote the screenplay with the real Loung Ung based on the latter’s nonfiction book. In fairness, Jolie isn’t interested in characterization at all, apart from the sweeping contrasts that she establishes between the benevolence of Loung’s family and the relentless cruelty and hypocrisy of their captors. This portrait of endless and angelic suffering threatens to grow tedious, though Jolie soon reveals a moral schematic that’s grand in its very granular intimacy.
Loung’s face, initially cute and wide-eyed, steadily grows battle-hardened, offset by eyes that radiate ferocious intelligence. Jolie’s sentimentality evolves into a startling vision of wilderness hell that’s navigated by fixating on immediate and minute elements. When Loung is separated from her family and forced into the military, Jolie lingers on a shot of child soldiers holding their rifles above their heads in the rain, as a snake slithers into the water engulfing them. Loung notices the snake, but war has made her into a girl who’s no longer bothered by such details, indicating a toughness that’s equally admirable and tragic. By necessity, a girl has figuratively died to make room for a warrior, which Jolie boils down to this image of exacting horror.
Jolie brings this sense of parred geometry to the climactic battle, when the Khmer Rouge is driven back by the Vietnamese military, trapping Loung, her siblings, and other fellow prisoners between two armies in the middle of war. In this sequence, the filmmaker’s primal sense of cause and effect is resonantly tethered to a child’s visceral choice between fight or flight. Dream and fantasy sequences, initially literal-minded and derivative in their evocation of Loung’s homesickness, are later used to dramatize Loung’s thought process, as she relies on military training to evade land mines in a sequence that’s both terrifying and exhilarating.
In other words, Jolie is a filmmaker who best expresses psychology through escalating interactions between people and settings. Loung becomes majestic not in a state of static misery (which might have been unforgettably rendered by Robert Bresson), but when she has a problem to solve. This characteristic of Jolie’s sensibility is evident even in a film such as the underrated By the Sea, which is concerned with the textural action of a relationship in crisis. Jolie isn’t yet an expressionist or a gifted dialectical dramatist, which is why First They Killed My Father’s early sequences, while competently staged, feel impersonal and rote, but she’s a blossoming poet of corporeal intellect.