Katrina (Maija Doveika) and Francis (Kaspars Znotins) have been a couple for a while and things can be a little tense between them. When they are assaulted by a biker (Kaspars Zale), they are both pretty shellshocked. Katrina turns to a police officer for help, leaving Francis feeling inadequate: he couldn’t stop the assault in the first place and now he isn’t even good enough to help afterwards. Determined to prove his worth, he seeks out the biker himself, but their confrontation goes differently than planned.
Firstborn has a strong first half, but then lost me in the second half, unfortunately, when it becomes muddled, confusing and a little boring. But there’s a lot of material for thought about masculinity in the film, so that’s something.
It’s pretty obvious that the film is out on a mission to examine masculinity. And yes, I’m keeping this in the singular on purpose. Francis – an architect who wears glasses, a thin man who is not sporty at all – feels emasculated by Katrina as much as the biker. Instead of exploring different kinds of masculinities in that set-up, figuring out ways in which Francis can still feel like a man even if he doesn’t conform to hegemonic masculinity, the film rather shows how Francis can go and claim hegemonic masculinity for himself.
And that is primarily through violence. His first act of violence happens quite by accident. He is immediately rewarded for it by Katrina becoming pregnant as if now he is man enough to become a father. But it isn’t enough for him to lay claim to hegemonic masculinity once, he needs to prove himself again and again. Whenever he tries to escape the confines of this type of masculinity, he is punished for it. In the end he actually tries to save a life instead of take it, which almost costs his own life – until he decides to kill after all. One could read it, maybe, as him trying to kill toxic masculinity, but that feels like quite a stretch.
Now, if I felt that this was done more in the spirit of showing how toxic hegemonic masculinity is, I would have appreciated it. Instead it felt more like a reassurance to me: even if you, a man, feel emasculated, even the feeblest of man has a beast inside of him. You just need to find it. And when I say beast, I do mean that quite literally: after the first act of violence, we see a red eye in the woods, in what is arguably the film’s strongest moment. How the beast is related to questions of masculinity, would be worth to examine further. As would be the intersection of masculinity and disability that also arises.
In any case, that first beast moment was so strong that it made me hope that the film would take a turn into a creature feature. Unfortunately it doesn’t really. And that was disappointing. Instead the film turns to a convoluted plot involving blackmail and contract killing that I still don’t quite get – and it was at that point that I lost the last shred of interest in the film as a film (as an essay on masculinity, there are still points to be made and thoughts to be had).
Still, there is much of worth in and to the film. The cast is great and even if I don’t agree with the film’s conclusions (maybe), it’s a film that would warrant a thorough examination, speaking to me as a film sociologist more than a film audience.
Summarizing: interesting but flawed.