A man and woman are walking home at night, making their way down a deserted street. They stop in the middle of the road and are almost clipped by a motorcyclist. The woman calls the man an asshole and he proceeds to violently attack them. This is the opening scene of Firstborn: a scenario which sends the lead character spiraling into a cerebral nightmare of toxic masculine instincts.
Writer/director Aik Karapetian plays this story as a series of falling dominos. Every time a problem seems solved, a new one arises. Firstborn is cinema of anxiety, much in the vein of films such as Irreversible or The Hunt. It is meticulously constructed around the central character, Francis’s (Kaspars Znotins) deteriorating mental state in the wake of the attack on himself and his wife. It is apparent from the earliest scenes that Francis’s persona is a delicate construct of a civilized man. Once his masculinity is called into question (he feels he did not do enough to protect his wife), this persona begins to be stripped down to more animalistic elements.
An early confrontation with the attacker illustrates Francis’s reserved façade visually. The attacker moves like an ape, traversing the forest environment they are in with ease and confidence. Francis at first appears foolish for confronting him as he trips over himself, trying to chase his enemy to no avail. It doesn’t take long for him to transform into someone much more along the lines of a traditional protector figure, however.
The mastery of Karapetian’s storytelling here is how Francis’s transformation is shown. This film is almost entirely visual in how the themes are communicated, very often leaving things to the viewer’s imagination. On a technical filmmaking level, it is a strong work of anxiety-ridden drama, but the experience of watching it is torturous. There is little to no music, letting the atmosphere of the scenes engulf you without pushing any emotion forward artificially. The cinematography is gorgeous and precisely composed, but the images on screen are highly upsetting. Firstborn is a bleak, upsetting movie to sit through. But, should you wish to go on its journey, the road there is a satisfying one.