The Black Cat [1934] – Fine Vintage Horror with a Singularly Creepy Atmosphere

Universal Pictures, one of Hollywood’s oldest and most famous studios, played a predominant role in molding American horror cinema genre, between 1920s and 1950s. BFI’s article on Universal horror flicks divides the era to four phase, starting from classic silent films (The Phantom of the Opera, 1925) to Gothic horrors of early sound era (Frankenstein, Dracula) to morbid monster movies in 1940s (The Wolf Man) to the Cold War era sci-fi horrors with dreadful extraterrestrials. Although the alleged B-grade production designs and hammy performances of these very old horror movies are often drawn into criticism, one can’t deny the brilliant atmospherics and wit featured in Universal’s horror. The B-grade values also do provide some campy fun. Frankenstein’s Monster and Count Dracula became the most popular cinematic figures in the history of American horror cinema. The actors Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi who respectively played these iconic characters went on to become huge stars, boosting the golden run of Gothic horror. These two biggest icons of the genre came together to share their screen space with Edgar G Ulmer’s bizarre and outlandish The Black Cat (1934). This is said to be first of the seven joint appearances and the stars had an amicable professional relationship.

The opening title of Black Cat is accompanied with words ‘suggested by Edgar Allan Poe’ (very loosely connected with Poe’s tale). Director Ulmer later admitted they added the literary giant’s name to draw in audiences (and Black Cat happened to be biggest hit of Universal in 1934). Austrian-American film-maker Edgar Ulmer is known as great stylist of the early American B-film. He has worked in wide variety of genres and the noir drama Detour (1945) was considered to be his best work (Detour is a must-watch gem among Noir cinema). Before moving to America, Mr. Ulmer has worked with influential silent-era German film-makers like Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau (in Hollywood, Ulmer has worked with great Austrian-American filmmakers Billy Wilder and Eric Stroheim). So its understandable how the elaborate sets in Black Cat, with its geometric precision, reflects the splendid aesthetics of German Expressionist-era cinema. Director Ulmer co-wrote the script with Peter Ruric (pseudonym for George Sims) who has freely borrowed ideas from early silent-era horror movies.

Newly weds honeymooning in gloomy Eastern Europe, intimidating stranger, accident, dazed women, mad villain with a ludicrous name conducting Black Mass, Black Cat possesses all the antiquated elements of early horror cinema. The film opens with newly wed Joan and Peter Alison (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners) going on a train journey to a remote mountain hotel in Hungary. Circumstances force them to share their compartment with Dr. Vitus Wedergast (Bela Lugosi), who has spent last 15 years of his life in a Russian prison. The initial set-up with closer look at Joan’s distressing emotions reminds of the opening scene in Lang’s early silent masterpiece Destiny (1921), where the newly wed couple traveling in a horse cart around the countryside is accompanied by a mysterious stranger. On the way to their hotel, the vehicle crashes and Joan is injured.

Dr. Wedergast takes the couple to the weirdly designed mansion of his old friend Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), an Austrian architect. There the doctor treats Joan and advises Peter to spend the night at the mansion. Dr. Wedergast has of course come to meet Poelzig to settle old scores. In the First World War, Poelzig has turned against Wedergast and thousands of his countrymen by betraying them to Russians. In fact, the gloomy bungalow is built on top of a fort destroyed in the battle between Austrian-Hungarian army and the Russians. Dr. Wedegast who is shown to have an irrational fear of cats (doesn’t serve much other than to justify the title), possesses a more personal reason to take revenge on Poelzig. Wedergast’s wife and daughter have supposedly succumbed to devious charms of Poelzig and he wants to know about their fate. Necrophilia, serial killings, human sacrifice, black mass, drugs, Poelzig’s deviance expands by each minute. And, as predicted the American couples too get embroiled in Poelzig’s penchant for perversity.

Plot-wise, The Black Cat is cockeyed and muddy. But many of the scenes standout due to vigor gathered from the screen pairing of Lugosi and Karloff, and due to Ulmer’s mesmerizing Gothic compositions. Director Ulmer and art director Charles D. Hall impressionist architecture brilliant embodies the savagery and evilness of Hjalmar Poelzig. In most of the scenes in second-half, Ulmer generates tension by the camera’s interaction with the dazzling architecture. Ulmer’s camera movements at times echo Lang (of Destiny, Metropolis) and Murnau’s (Nosferatu) aesthetical values. Like the great German film-makers, Ulmer also makes better use of mirrors, reflections, concrete walls, and staircases. The breathtaking images of satanic ceremony and collection of dead women preserved in huge glass cages easily overshadows the other meticulous compositions (for its time, the movie was considered very dark and studio demanded certain cuts).

Edgar Ulmer also finds little space to make his commentary on the Great War and the ensuing Nazi menace. The metaphorical interpretation of Poelzig building his artiest modern mansion on the brutal ruins of the past is very apparent. When Poelzig talks of hideousness of the past, Dr. Wedergast replies, “There is still death in the air. It is just as much undermined today as ever”, may be indicating to the gradual rise of Third Reich. But Black Cat doesn’t take itself very seriously and doesn’t promise the viewers any profound allegory about the Great War. It’s just a strange mix of then irresistible elements employed in horror genre. After the explosive climax, the epilogue interestingly self-mocks the implausibility of the plot. Despite the worn-out plot mechanics, the two horror icons efficiently battle it out on-screen. Bela Lugosi’s exaggerated English diction (the way he pronounces ‘Kurgaal’ is enchanting) and Karloff’s depraved stares are the high-points amidst the campy narrative. 



The Black Cat (65 minutes) is a must watch flick for the admirers of expressionist horror and fans of Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi. The impeccable mise en scene and the hyperbolic performances mildly transcends the inherent campiness of the plot nature. 

Kurangu Bommai [2017] – A Skilfully Directed Crime Thriller with Darker Impulses

Nithilan Swaminathan’s interesting hyperlink thriller Kurangu Bommai (2017, Monkey Doll) contains one of the spectacular MacGuffins in the recent history of Tamil cinema. MacGuffin, as popularized by suspense master Alfred Hitchcock, is sort of the engine that sets the narrative in motion. It could be anything: an object or person or it could be one’s pursuit for abstract things like love, power, etc. A MacGuffin works better when the nature of it as important to the characters on-screen as it is to the audience. As viewers and characters are drawn into the myth of MacGuffin, a fine film-maker employs this element to bring more depth and complexity to the proceedings. In Kurangu Bommai, the MacGuffin is a travel bag with a printed monkey face. Our understanding of what’s inside the bag varies at different points of the narrative, deepening the viewers' emotional investment. The object is shown as the ultimate temptation, although it only induces unpleasant consequences.

Kurangu Bommai is the debut feature of Nithilan Swaminathan and a second well-received hyper-link Tamil cinema of the year (previous one was Maanagaram aka Metropolis). The film isn’t tonally perfect, the writing is flawed at times, and also gives into some pitfalls of commercial film-making. Yet the most fascinating aspects of the movie is Mr. Nithilan’s eye for details, cinematographer NS Udhayakumar’s vigorous shots of urban scape, and pitch-perfect performances from the ensemble cast. Writer/director Nithilan shows a penchant for placing the scenarios between dark humor and utter bleakness. In the opening scene, we see a middle-aged man talking on phone, singing a song, and chewing tobacco as well as spitting to one side. As the camera gradually zooms out, we perceive the distressing nature of the setting. The man named Ekambaram (PL Thennapan) is a timber mill owner (from Tanjore) who is also engaged in the illegal business of smuggling precious Hindu god statues. His spit actually lands on a bounded police officer who seems to have stumbled upon Ekambaram’s contraband dealings. The fate of the guy in uniform is easily guessable. However, the sensibilities that went into staging this simple ‘villain or MacGuffin’ introduction scene are intriguing. Furthermore, this confrontation leads to the introduction of a character, so contrary to Ekambaram: Sundaram (Bharathiraja), a na├»ve family man and a friend/trusted worker (in the timber mill) of Ekambaram.

The plot kicks-in when the 5 crore rupee worth statue needs to be delivered to Chennai (from Tanjore). In a parallel narrative, we have Kathir (Vitharth), Sundaram’s son who works as a call-taxi driver in Chennai. He randomly encounters a middle-aged man in the bus stop, carrying the aforementioned locked travel bag. The middle-aged guy is talking to his wife in mobile about arranging money for his daughter’s marriage. A pickpocket (Sekar) who wants to score big overhears the conversation and snatches the bag. Kathir runs after him and eventually nabs the guy. He brings back the bag, but to his dismay, he couldn’t find the stranger in bus-stop. Then the narrative cuts to recent past (2 days before) when Sundaram hops aboard a bus to Chennai with the same travel bag, as per Ekambaram’s instructions. Sundaram has now gone missing. The narrative moves between the recent past and the present where group of characters search for this coveted monkey-face bag. As the sketchy past adds to our perception of the present, we become uncertain about what’s actually inside the locked bag.

What’s interesting about Nithilan’s direction is his brief visual detours, stuffed with spectacular details. Take for example, the staging of the conversation between police inspector and disquieted gypsy couple, Nithilan plays with our judgment of the scenario. Then there’s a shot of cat with newborn kittens, confined to police station’s dirty storeroom, the shot of a goon’s kid imitating her father’s action, the capturing of familiar domestic squabbles, the shot of a broken ceiling fan at the police station, the details that goes to describe the pickpocket’s angst. A lot of these visuals don’t have any direct impact over the story. But these barrages of tiny, bewitching details ably study the oppressive, societal space, which really has a hold over the characters’ erratic decisions. I hope Mr. Nithilan retains this extraordinary gift of gazing at societal atmosphere in his future projects too.

Similar to Maanagaram, Kurangu Bommai too demands us to accept certain level of implausibility (suspension of disbelief) to fully engage with the narrative. The inexplicable number of coincidences mostly works in favor of propelling the plot. However, the one sub-plot that could have been easily substituted or done away with is cutesy romance between Kathir and Viji (Delna Davis). The out-of-place romance and the ensuing song wreak havoc to the film’s otherwise serious race against time and emotions. The commercial value of this cute sub-plot is understandable but it slackens the tension of tightrope situation, failing to prepare us for the ultimately grave ending. Maanagaram also had to succumb to similar commercial values, but that generally had a hopeful tone and happily rounded off the culmination of hyperlinks. Considering the memorably distressing final twist in this film, Kathir and Viji’s exchanges seem very meek. The other problem is Kathir’s characterization. It’s a bit dry and doesn’t have the overreaching arc unlike the other characters. Bharathiraja’s Sundaram and the other two villain characters are well-rounded or complex compared to do-gooder Kathir. Moreover, Kathir’s final act although has the perfect shocking factor, on hindsight appears highly farfetched.

Despite playing an under-written character, Vitharth does a reasonably good job in playing Kathir (it is also commendable how the actor is associating himself with sensible projects – previously played lead roles in critically acclaimed Kuttrame Thandanai & Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu). Nevertheless, Veteran director Bharathiraja, Thenappan, and Elango Kumaravel somehow manages to steal the show from Vitharth’s protagonist. Kumaravel, who often plays good guy roles in Prakash Raj-Radha Mohan productions, astoundingly plays the humanized yet casually brutal villain Sekar, who is lot obsessed with Cricket. A lot of incredible thought has gone into the realization of this diabolical character (the only thing that felt unnecessary about the character is the brief break into out-of-tune satirical song towards the end). 


Kurangu Bommai (105 minutes) is a compelling, hard-hitting thriller that overcomes its flaws and implausibility factor with directorial finesse and quality performances. 

A Ghost Story [2017] – A Deeply Resonant Non-Narrative Drama on Existential Despair

David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017) is a slow cinema that channels the subtle visual tropes of contemporary realist-surrealist masters Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, Pedro Costa, and Carlos Reygadas to contemplate on the eternally haunting themes of time, grief and existence. David Lowery who made his directorial debut with visually poetic indie drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) – starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara – followed it up with marvelously entertaining live-action Disney fantasy Pete’s Dragon (2016). After working three years on a studio film, Lowery had returned back to his indie roots with an image of a sheet-ghost which kept flashing upon in his mind. A Ghost Story originated initially as a 10 page script about two lovers, death and a spirit. The script later expanded to 30 pages and Lowery roped in his friends Affleck and Mara to play the lead roles who also now happened to be Oscar-nominated stars (in the case of Affleck he had just won an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea).

David Lowery just took his actors to Irving, Texas where he filmed his first movie but this time kept the project under wraps, hoping to not build any kind of expectations. In the ‘Rolling Stone’ interview, when asked why he took this decision, Lowery replies:  “Because I wanted to give us the chance to fail. And at first, I felt like there was an extremely high probability of that happening.” Looking at Rooney Mara gorging on a pie in real time or Casey Affleck stuck inside a large white cloth with two black eye-holes, A Ghost Story seems to be, at least for the first few minutes, leaning on absurdity factor despite some moving visuals. But once I got past this goofy setup and get on its singular wavelength, Lowery’s hauntingly creative and relentlessly thoughtful visuals conveyed more profound emotions and ideas than what I expected.

Director Lowery has a fair estimate of how his movie would be received: I knew that it would probably alienate 90 percent of moviegoers. And I was okay with that. I was making this movie for myself. I knew there were a handful of people who share my taste so I wouldn’t be the only person who liked it, but I figured it would probably rub most people the wrong way” [in Slant Magazine interview]. Employing the strangely potent Malick-ian sense of vision and boxy 1:33:1 aspect ratio, the film opens with the image of a couple cuddling on a couch. A flash of ectoplasm moves across the wall without visibly disturbing the warmth of their intimacy. The couple is only identified as M (Rooney Mara) and C (Casey Affleck), living their quiet life in a small country-side cottage. Lowery explores M (a musician) and C’s relationship through the cozy domestic space and through deep closeness that lingers after their fulfillment of erotic needs. Although the movie has no narrative, there’s one event worth mentioning: M and C are roused from their sleep by a strange sound in the living room. This event is burdened with an emotional weight when Lowery returns back to it towards the end.

Even though the initial scenes depicting M and C’s cohabitation feels typical of low-key indie romances, it contains a cumulative power which could be felt in the third half of the narrative. A painfully slow pan across the spacious suburbs at dawn reveals the aftermath of a car crash. C lies lifeless at the wheel. Later C awakens in the morgue, taking the form of a ghost and travels back to his house through Poletergeist-esque portal. Cloaked in white-sheet with crudely cut eye-holes, C’s non-corporeal form looks like a child’s idea of a restless spirit. Unable to comfort his mourning lover, the ghost passively watches M succumbing to her grief. It silently gazes as she proceeds to eat a large-sized pie, an act that seems to be done to satisfy the literal hunger but the dazed binging reflects her need to numb the inner anguish. We may have seen quite a lot of movies demonstrating the people’s inability to move on after the loss of loved one. But what if this inability haunts a ghost? And how life and time unfurls from a sheet-ghost’s perspective? A totally unanticipated, enchantingly objective and mind-blowing second-half asks more quietly devastating questions like this, eventually contemplating on the very nature of time and meaning of our existence.

The fascinating visual conceit of A Ghost Story is the depiction of the non-corporeal entity’s (ghost) sadness and emotional burden which isn’t constrained by the concept of time. After the wordless expression of M’s grief in the pie-eating scene, time moves faster while the ghost’s reluctance to let go of her remains the only constant factor. The warm physical space, memories made in the space, and the final note M places inside small crack of the wall earnestly expresses the ghost's wordless despair. There’s a repeated shot of M moving between her room and living room door without any cut which brilliantly conveys movement of time alongside a sense of being stuck. Did M redeemed or surrendered herself through the phase of grief, we really don’t know since she moves out of the house that unsettled her from the very first moment (perfectly at the film’s half-way point and she actually drives into sunset). What follows is the ghost’s unfathomable yet rapid progress through time. It becomes a poltergeist terrorizing the family of a Hispanic single mother and once again stands as a passive spectator, hearing a hipster’s long monologue on the meaninglessness of existence at a house party. The hipster and amateur philosopher is played by Old Joy (2006) actor Will Oldham (also a songwriter) who unromantically prognosticates on the death of all matter: “…..Your kids are all gonna die and their kids will die…….”

Writer/director Lowery only further ramps up the existentialism as he demolishes the ghost’s profound sense of attachment to the house, and in its place glitzy skyscrapers arise. The ghost prattles through eternity, searching for the one little thing it lost. It also travels back in time to a distant past when a settler family is massacred by unseen Native Americans. A simple shot/reverse shot moves across months, showing the fresh corpse of a child to its decomposed state. These intriguing digressions convey time’s devastation in cosmic proportions. And, Lowery slowly but sure-handedly comes back to the placid suburban home for a metaphysical final act. After traveling with the ghost in an emotionally paralyzed state, we return back to the warm couch and the couple’s feelings of love. The early prolonged shot of the lover’s embrace springs up from our memory and now the mundane setup looks magical. The stillness of their emotional and physical intimacy seems more transfixing than the journey across time. What’s the meaning of all 'this' (this being the malady of existence) may be the unanswerable question that annoys us. Returning back to this small, earlier moment of closeness the value (or meaning) of their life, however, seems to strongly resound through the frames.

Director David Lowery had listed out range of avant-garde and mainstream works that inspired his aesthetic and thematic exploration. Starting from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away to Poltergeist and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, the idea of an eternally bound ghost is derived unexpectedly from different sources. As I mentioned earlier, Lowery channels in visual acuity of slow-cinema masters Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee who can Recall his Past Lives) and Ming-liang (Good Bye, Dragon Inn & Stray Dogs) while shaping the uneventful extended takes, which looks weird, ridiculous, whimsical as well as contemplative. I particularly loved the scenes C’s ghost encounters another ghost in the neighbor’s house. Without employing any visual manipulation, Lowery makes the encounter oddly funny as well as incredibly sad. The boxlike frame recently used in movies like Jauja, Post Tenbras Lux, etc heightens the poignancy and brings genuine lyricism to the passage of time. 


A Ghost Story (92 minutes) would definitely appear to be pretentious, boring and silly experimental movie for large group of movie-goers. But it bestowed on me a deeply reflective and emotionally eloquent movie experience. Brooding mindset, minimal expectations and little suspension of belief might be the key ingredients to absorb David Lowery’s masterful existential fantasy/drama. 

First They Killed My Father [2017] – An Immersive Cambodian Genocide Drama with Few Shortcomings

The 2015 drama ‘By The Sea’ was the most disastrous directorial venture of Angelina Jolie. Compared with this marriage-in-crisis movie, Ms. Jolie’s previous two renderings of true historical catastrophes – In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011) & Unbroken (2014) -- seemed like a monumental work. Angelina Jolie had long been termed as the ‘wild girl’ of Hollywood with the harsh spotlight of sex and drugs hanging above her. Despite truly earning the position of top celebrity do-gooder (a special envoy to the UN, spent more than a decade campaigning for the rights of refugees and went on awareness-raising trips to dangerous war zones like Syria, Myanmar, Iraq, etc), Hollywood often scrutinizes her flaws to step-up the hate-meter. Ms. Jolie has proven how largely different she is from the privileged brats or alleged do-gooders of Hollywood who are destitute of goodwill or genuine altruism. Without undermining Jolie’s truly subversive and genuinely humane side, however, one must also acknowledge the emotionally cold or distant nature of her directorial techniques. Her fragmented artistic strategies conjure fine visuals and extract reasonably good performances, but are also undeniably cliched and emotionally unsatisfying. Taking into account such conceptual and narrative missteps, Angelina Jolie’s latest directorial undertaking First They Killed My Father (2017) could broadly be deemed as her best work so far. She makes odd blunders and there are the usual questions about the ethics of aestheticizing genocide terror, but for the most part Jolie delivers the powerful true story with incredible restraint and moving emotional quotient.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers was a non-fiction book (published in 2000) written by Cambodian author Loug Ung, a childhood survivor of Khmer Rouge’s terror reign which killed at least three million Cambodians. Loung’s poignant memoir starts from the days her siblings danced to rock music in Phenom Penh and gradually delves into the vortex of Pol Pot’s monstrous ideology which forced the 7 year old to become a child soldier. The heart of the film is Loung the child’s gaze. And director Jolie never forgets it as she clings to the devastating and fixed stare of her young protagonist. Angelina Jolie’s collaboration with Loung Ung in shaping the script and the inclusion of acclaimed documentarian Rity Panh (S-21, The Missing Picture) as a producer (Jolie’s adopted Cambodian son Maddox is listed as executive producer) makes sure that the autobiographical tale stays as a profound mood piece, braided with messages of warning and hope. Subsequently, the film is a well-focused and intimate vision of Khmer Rouge’s dehumanizing agendas.

Angelina Jolie somewhat eschews cultural appropriation and took the rightful decision to use local actors speaking Khmer language. Of course, her aesthetic approach is torn between paying tribute to Ung’s resilience and donning the role of a reporter examining the human costs of Khmer Rouge. She succeeds better in showcasing Ung’s survival than iterate the affecting details of Pol Pot’s legacy of terror. First They Killed My Father begins with Oliver Stone style montage with stock footage of Nixon sanitizing American policy on Cambodia juxtaposed with blitzkrieg unleashed on Cambodian civilians. Caught in the crossfires of American-Vietnam conflict (in early 1970s), some Cambodians believed in the deliverance promised by a radical communist movement. The historical video footage of Nixon’s ‘This is not an invasion of Cambodia’ speech insists how the violence that spilled into Cambodia’s borders indirectly led to the murderous regime between 1975 and 1979.

In the spring of 1975, Five year old Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch), her six siblings (three brothers and three sisters), government official father and housewife mother lead a fairly peaceful life in busy capital Phnom Penh. That is until the Khmer Rouge rebels sweep into the capital, and runs out the city’s entire population into the jungles. Ung has the universal qualities of a child who has grown up in warm-hearted family: curiosity, empathy, fear, and confusion over inhumaneness and death. Actor Phoeung Kompheak turns in a brilliant graceful performance as the titular father, who does his best to quell the children’s concerns. His eyes stay tender and reflect unbridled love despite the radical shift to dictatorial terror. Furthermore, it’s a good decision to not have included a voice-over or elaborate opening titles to explain the political details. Jolie & Ung decides to keep viewers in the state of bewilderment similar to that of their child protagonist. Jolie and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s creative flourishes frames the initial march away from the city through aerial shots, hinting at how Khmer Rouge saw the swarm of people as the disposable tools to achieve its agrarian utopia.

In order to evade execution for being loyal to the previous regime, Ung’s Pa passes himself as a worker and often warns his children to not reveal their true identities. After reaching the disparate labor camps, the family builds their straw and bamboo house. Khmer Rouge starts from the usual communist ideology of abandoning private assets but further ramps up its oppressive mood by mandating that everyone should wear clothes the same shade of black. Everyone, including the children, is forced to work in the fields, emotions are considered a weakness, and the idea of private space is non-existent. Despite harvesting bumper crops, the families are given the same quota of gruel. Loung Ung who doesn’t understand this relentless torture on farmlands often ponders in her head-space, conjuring vivid dreams about feasting from a smorgasbord. The more disorienting and harsh the child’s life becomes, the more fanciful the dream imagery becomes. After the act that’s hinted on the movie's title happens, Loung Ung and her sibling get separated from Ma. Loung is recruited as a child soldier. She learns to plant land mines and fire automatic weapons to massacre the Vietnamese ‘cockroaches’.

Director Jolie’s predominant aesthetic flair includes steadily moving point-of-view shots or over-the-shoulder shots, crisply capturing Ung’s disbelief on what’s unfolding. The narrative structure is designed around the escalating series of events that disunites the family. But Jolie’s perspective doesn’t remain exploitative or unnecessarily linger around for melodrama. The frames of Ung’s shell-shocked stillness serve as vivid form of contemplating the sadness and helplessness. Mantle’s cinematography (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Antichrist) are expressive and astonishingly beautiful without being flashy. Although the visuals are par excellence, Jolie at times employs too much of free-flowing Malick-ian shots to create meditative effect. These shots of sunlight streaming through densely populated trees, of placid faces assimilating the horror gets repeated much too often to become profound emotional force. Nevertheless, there are quite too many commendable directorial decisions. For example, she doesn’t amp up the misery of Ung’s predicament by relying on teary eyes or slo-mo shots or orchestral strings. The inevitable departure of Pa is effectively staged without relying on external factors of music or dramatized acting. We just see a restrained and assuring smile from Pa as he walks to meet his fate. There’s assortment of devastating visuals which includes the shot of Loung and her fellow child soldiers standing in waist-deep water holding Ak-47s behind the shoulders, while getting battered by the rain; and the menacing aerial shot of Ung trudging through mine-field.

May be Jolie’s film doesn’t boast the particularity and intimacy of the befuddled or haunted child’s gaze, witnessed in masterpieces like Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1948), Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games (1952), Victor Erice’s The Spirit of Beehive (1973), Guillermo del Toro’s Pans Labyrinth (2006), etc. But she doesn’t use the desperate situation of a child for making aesthetically pleasing set-pieces – as done in Cary Fukanaga’s Beasts of No Nation (2015) which barring such flaws is otherwise a sobering portrayal of a boy soldier. Perhaps Jolie’s visual grammar is still very limited (which alternates between close-ups, wide shot & aerial shots and flashes back to visuals of better days, although the imagery here is far accomplished than previous efforts) compared to the vision of those cinematic masters. Yet, this film keeps us devastated and kindles some interest on the next movie project Jolie the director embarks upon.. 



With ‘First They Killed My Father’ (136 minutes), Angelina Jolie ably channels her inherent altruistic intentions to make a truly affecting cinema. Barring few muddy narrative turns, the film’s indelible emotional core deserves a studied view.