In the early moments of Firstborn, the new thriller from writer/director Aik Karapetian, a man and his wife are menaced by a motorcycle on a deserted city street. The woman believes the man swerved close to her in an attempt to steal her purse. Her husband is more interested in avoiding confrontation than he is in pursuing impromptu justice for his wife. The biker returns, punches out the husband, suggestively assaults the wife and finally steals her purse. It’s as if the biker has chosen to fulfill the opinion the couple had of him when they first encountered one another.
As the first act of the film progresses, we see hints of the emotional fallout from the husband’s inability to protect his wife. He feels emasculated. She tries to appear unfazed by the incident, but he senses her judgment and resentment. This territory was mined to much greater effect in the 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure when a husband and father flees what appears to be an avalanche, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves. The incident was in fact a controlled event, and the wife and children were never in any true danger, but the husband’s failure to protect his loved ones creates rifts in the family unit.
Rather than explore this thematic ground, Firstborn chooses the path of a thriller when the husband decides to seek out the biker, and their second confrontation goes awry. It’s at that point that the film begins to spin out of control. Your enjoyment of Firstborn will be in direct proportion to your ability to tolerate characters who act in inexplicable ways in order to propel the narrative in the direction the filmmaker thinks it needs to go. Almost all thrillers require a reasonable suspension of disbelief. However, Firstborn will test your willingness to go along for the ride. Its gritty production values create a dirty sense of realism, so it’s all the more jarring when characters make inexplicable decisions that result in conflict and violence that could have easily been avoided.
Subplots pop up and disappear with little explanation. Strange packages arrive, intruders break into our protagonist’s home on multiple occasions, nefarious characters orchestrate the assassination of another character to whom we’ve never been introduced. Several times I assumed that an event must be a dream sequence because of its total lack of logic, only to discover that the event was in fact taking place in our characters’ reality. Firstborn generates a sense of paranoia on several occasions only to squander it on climaxes that make little sense.
By the end of the film, I had no real investment in the outcome. The characters remain inscrutable throughout the narrative. While people often act irrationally, it’s nearly impossible to base a film on a series of nonsensical decisions and have the audience come along for the ride. For me, this was a rare swing and miss from the folks at Fantastic Fest.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.