FIRSTBORN Review – The Dark Side of Masculinity
Starring Maija Doveika, Kaspars Znotins, Dainis Grube
Written by Aik Karapetian
Directed by Aik Karapetian
Firstborn is a powerful exploration of toxic masculinity.
While there are morally decent women in the movie, you’re really not going to find any good men. Our protagonist, Francis (Kaspars Znotins) is an existential coward, and he knows it, which causes an internal rage that manifests itself in interactions with his wife, Katrina (Maija Doveika). This is graphically illustrated when the couple, walking home late at night, are attacked and robbed by a mysterious motorcyclist (Dainis Grube). The biker knocks Francis to the ground and proceeds to shove Katrina against a wall, take her purse, and run a metal rod up and down her leg, sending the message that he could rape her if he wanted to. It’s clear that Francis isn’t injured enough that he couldn’t get up and come to the rescue of his wife. But, out of fear, he doesn’t. He lay on the ground, a passive observer, while his wife is assaulted.
What follows is Francis’ downward spiral into paranoia, magical thinking, and other symptoms of male fragility. Francis imagines his wife sleeping with the motorcyclist, accuses her of having an affair with her ex-boyfriend (who happens to be the cop assigned to the case), and ultimately becomes a murderer. Sort of. Accidentally. Francis is the very definition alt-right sexual politics, imagining himself being cucked by men that he considers far more ideal examples of traditional masculinity. Francis’ personality is embodied in the name of a small Japanese tourist trinket that a friend of Katrina’s gifts her at the beginning of the film: The Cowardly Warrior.
Francis is not a good man, and this can make the film a bit of an endurance test. We’re with the guy in nearly every scene, and he only becomes more detestable as the movie goes on. And because this is a film distributed by Artsploitation, the movie is deliberately paced in a meditative arthouse style. This might prove to be more than some viewers are willing to sit through, though I’m a fan of both unlikeable protagonists and arthouse pacing. I’ve never been of the school that a character has to be sympathetic or relatable to be of interest. Firstborn isn’t going to be a crowd pleaser, so to speak, but that’s why it’s on a niche label.
Gatis, the motorcycle driver, is a more traditionally evil character, making him all the more interesting next to Francis. He barely speaks, and his violence is overt. He knows the physical power he has over people, so he has no need to resort to the more psychological manipulations that Francis, because he’s a physically weak intellectual, has to resort to. In this way, Firstborn bares more than a passing resemblance to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.
You would be forgiven for thinking all this would make for a pretty straightforward psychological thriller. But that’s not the case. Firstborn gets quite surreal, both in terms of story and aesthetically. Story details, especially toward the end, are vague, dreamlike, even supernatural at times. The psychological narrative is what’s important here. This leads to a bit of an overly-elaborate finale, though it’s still very compelling. Firstborn isn’t going to appeal to a whole lot of people, and that’s okay. If you can stand some brutal darkness for an hour and a half, there’s a lot to like about this film.
Firstborn rewards viewers’ patience with an excellent and haunting psychological study of toxic masculinity.