So last night I theorized that the best way to dull the inevitably depressing impact of another election night would be to watch a movie sure to be more depressing than any exercise of democratic rights, no matter how empty. I watched The Killing Fields :D
In retrospect I think this may have been a kind of brilliant ploy to combat election fatigue, and to put all the breathless coverage into perspective. This is one of those movies that's full of unrelenting, historically-accurate brutality arising from the rapid breakdown of a society. So completely did it inoculate me against overreacting to every little announcement last night that I'm now thinking, in four years, I'll want to make sure I have Hotel Rwanda handy.
The Killing Fields is the true story of two journalists (one American, the other Cambodian) navigating the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia. It's got an unconventional narrative structure, like many films based on a true story—in particular, I was reminded of Empire of the Sun more than once. For fear of spoilers I won't summarize the plot further. Having never seen The Killing Fields before, but knowing a little bit about the Khmer Rouge, I felt only occasionally lost by the events depicted. But even at its most opaque, it never gets boring for an instant.
The two leads are Haing S. Ngor (the first Asian actor to win an Oscar, for this role) as Dith Pran and Sam Waterston as Liberal Guilt—a role he inhabits with expected authenticity, though his attempt at a New York accent is surprisingly bad. The supporting cast gets comparatively little screen time, and includes a young Craig T. Nelson, a young Julian Sands, and a young but somehow not that much different-looking John Malkovich.
The striking tension and vicious carnage on display—along with the subtly powerful cinematography—are mostly enhanced, but occasionally overpowered, by an electronic Mike Oldfield score. I dig Mike Oldfield and everything, but at times this score went too far. One point where it didn't, I would argue, is the prolonged sequence showing the leads' initial arrest by the Khmer Rouge. Oldfield went all jarring, clangy, and downright unmusical here, and it sets your teeth on edge in a wholly appropriate way, considering the situation.
I can envision some viewers taking exception to the film's perspective on American foreign policy. I'm certain I don't understand enough about the dominant political arguments in mid-'70s America to parse whether this film is entirely "fair and balanced." But I doubt that it really matters. This is the friggin' Khmer Rouge we're talking about. Maybe sometimes we need to just document history and save the hand-wringing and concern-trolling for election season.
Star Score: 4 out of 5