First They Killed My Father premieres on Netflix on September 15.
It would have been easy for Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Cambodian genocide survivor Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir to go ruthlessly and repeatedly for the emotional jugular. First They Killed My Father is, after all, the story of a young girl hurled into one of the 20th century’s most unthinkable nightmares. But Loung’s book was itself a work of tight, no-nonsense prose; the facts it presented were devastating enough. And the film is similarly tough and unyielding; it unspools with admirable discipline and verve. This is Jolie’s most accomplished work yet.
Loung was just 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge entered the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in 1975. The guerrilla army had spent the previous decade or so growing and radicalizing in the country’s mountains and jungles, feeding off the chaos of the Vietnam War next door. Even so, their victory was initially greeted with relief; many Cambodians believed this would mark the end to years of civil war. Within hours, however, the Khmer Rouge forced the residents of Phnom Penh out. The new regime was determined to eradicate the country’s past and any vestiges of modernity, in order to build an entirely agrarian, classless society where the only family anyone would know was the state. If you spoke a foreign language (colonialist!), you could be executed. If you wore a pair of glasses (intellectual!), you could be executed. If you owned nice clothes (bourgeois!), you could be executed. Over the next four years, 2 million Cambodians perished — nearly a quarter of the country.
Jolie doesn’t spend much time on Loung’s life before the Khmer Rouge takeover, though we do get a couple of scenes showing the family trying to maintain normalcy even as war approaches their city: pleasant scenes at dinner, Loung’s brother showing his dance moves. Once the family has to evacuate Phnom Penh — with her dad, a former member of U.S.-backed President Lon Nol’s government, concealing his identity — the film becomes mostly dialogue-free. Keeping their heads down, they march along with tens of thousands of others, eventually making their way to a collective village. That’s when the real madness begins.
These people are forced to live in a world where showing too much compassion or pain is suspect, and sometimes it seems as if the film itself has absorbed that idea. Jolie never flinches from the horror; she just doesn’t dwell on it. It’s as if the movie is keeping its head down, moving along. Its power, therefore, lies not so much in individual moments as in their cumulative impact. As Loung, Sreymoch Sareum hides her vulnerability and often looks out at the world with slow-burning bewilderment and anger. What emoting there is comes from Socheata Sveng, playing Loung’s mother: Whether she’s grieving the dissolution of her family, the death of a child or the unspeakable survival advice she has to give her surviving kids, every register of anguish on her face feels not just earned, but long overdue.
Most of First They Killed My Father is told through close-ups and point-of-view shots, but the film’s signature angle might actually be a bird’s-eye view of the action — as we watch the evacuation of Phnom Penh, or starving workers slaving in a rice paddy, or a minefield littered with corpses. Through such stylistic flourishes, Jolie highlights the fact that the story she’s presenting is just one tragedy among many. But by pulling away, she also reminds us of our own comfortable distance. We can stand apart and regard all this from afar — as much of the world did in the mid-1970s. Even as Jolie plunges us into the first-person horror of Loung’s tale, she seems to acknowledge that there are certain experiences and suffering we in the audience will never truly grasp.
The film saves the real emotional dynamite for the end, however. The one moment when I fully, truly lost it came in a scene at a makeshift refugee camp, where Loung finds herself in the middle of a crowd that has cornered a Khmer Rouge soldier. These people — ordinary folks who have had to endure so much agony — set upon the silent, nameless man, nearly killing him. The scene is heartbreaking not for its sense of justice or catharsis (there is none), but because it shows us what happens when every atom of a society is ionized with hate. Jolie lays bare the fragility of our own humanity.