Firstly, I’d just like to say thanks to Ray Murray at Artsploitation Films for providing me with access to a screener of the Latvian-made Mystery/Thriller “Firstborn”, Written and Directed by Aik Karapetian (The Man In The Orange Jacket). Firstborn is a surreal slow-burn thriller about the middle-aged and cultivated Francis (played by Kaspars Znotins), who goes a step too far while looking to save face in the eyes of his enigmatic wife Katrina (Maija Doveika) in the wake of an assault at the hands of a mystery biker (Kaspars Zale). Over time he begins to notice certain connections between the man, his wife’s sudden pregnancy, and those who are forcing his hand in a matter of life and death. The film also stars Dainis Grube.
Going in, Firstborn wasn’t a film I knew much about, but it piqued my curiosity for no other reason than that Artsploitation Films have become synonymous with distributing some quality films that may or may not be considered outside the parameters of conventional. Right from the word go, Karapetian and composer Andris Dzenitis hit us with some extremely deep and dark cello strokes that accompany a piece of performance art, in turn starting proceedings off with an unnerving sensibility. In fact, the entire score is made up of haunting and dreary orchestral themes, and the sound of horns complete the ensemble. The locations are great and Janis Eglitis’s cinematography is simple in its conception and execution. The framing is neat, there are elegant wides and effective overheads, along with plenty of gentle zooming to help capture the essence of the scene. The quality sound design is another raw facet that helps establish the intended atmosphere. With the exception of the secondary actors that appear in the opening scene (who aren’t credited), there are only four characters in the film. Both Kaspars and Maija deliver solid performances and the dynamics of the Francis and Katrina relationship are intriguing. The duality in their respective personality types is indisputable, begging the question, how did they end up together in the first place? He’s a docile intellectual type lacking in the backbone department, as is evident on the night of the encounter with the biker. Whereas she’s more on the free-spirited side but simultaneously unhappy with the current state of her lot in life. Zale is well cast as the mean-spirited motor-cycle man and carries that sense of dread with him everywhere he goes throughout the film.
Most of the technical aspects of Firstborn are strong but there are a few inconsistencies in the color grading of early scenes in the woods. The same can be said for the foul look of the hospital, which has quite a greenish tint to it. There’s a sense of surrealism to the film that sees it lose its way in the third act. For starters, it’s problematic when Katrina appears to go back and forth regarding her level of interest or concern about the attack. I understand that Francis feels the need to atone so he can be seen as more of a man in his wife’s eyes, but still. On a number of occasions where characters are at a crossroads or in a potentially harmful situation, Aik opts to instead pick up with scenes after the fact, and that makes some of the content and meaning rather confusing. A primary example would be that we don’t see the assertive steps that Francis takes to track down Armands (the biker), something that would be considered a crucial development in his arc. The couple is loose “friends” with a police officer named Gatis (Grube) who seems potentially a little too friendly with Katrina, and so maybe we’re just supposed to read between the lines as to how Francis got the information to find Armands. The other thing of note to question is, would he really approach the man in that fashion? Probably not. By the end, I had a lot more questions than there appeared to be answers for. Was Francis purely losing his mind through paranoia? Did Katrina imagine Armands visiting her in the apartment? If not, how did he get there and get back to the forest to tangle with Francis? Was he actually there at all or did he represent something else altogether? I’m not sure about any of it.
Firstborn is a very polished independent Mystery/Thriller and my first official look at a feature film from Latvia. Karapetian has a good eye and clearly drives high standards for his work. The score proves unnerving, the cinematography is great, and the performances from all four actors are really good. The most significant property in the film is certainly the inner-workings of Francis and Katrina’s relationship and how that came to fruition, perhaps it’s as simple as that age-old saying “opposites attract”, though something tells me it’s not. There are a few blemishes here and there, the pacing doesn’t always work either, but it’s the absence of those important connector moments that ultimately hurt the film because they clearly serve as catalysts to things that follow. I thought the third act fell way and the mystery fizzled out into surreal obscurity when I’d hoped for a rounder direction. All in all, I still think Firstborn is worth a look, even if for no other reason than to broaden your film horizons. It’s now available for streaming on VOD (video on demand) and other platforms. Go ahead and check out the trailer below to see if you might enjoy this one!
My rating for “Firstborn” is 5.5/10