In terms of a film making an impression on me before I’d ever seen it, The Killing Fields swung in like an impending strike from a wrecking ball; big and looming in the window, with an inevitable impact that I would almost certainly feel. So, to have the film itself be relatively low-key about how it presents its story came as a bit of a surprise, and I’m not entirely sure it was a welcome one. I was expecting a war film that would hit me to my core, and I may have even been eagerly anticipating the experience, if that indeed were to be the experience I was to have. Not so here; The Killing Fields came not with a bang but with a whimper, albeit an incredibly politically idealized whimper.
The film details the Khmer Rouge activities in Cambodia in the early-to-mid 1970s, through the lens (often literally) of a pair of journalists, played excellently by Sam Waterston and Haing S. Ngor; the latter winning an Oscar for his work. I’ll start off technically; this film is, to use the very definition of the word, awesome. The production value was outstanding, the cinematography was superb, and the editing, though it did lag at times, was spot-on. That being said, I couldn’t help but feel that the film was too aimless for my tastes. The plot is mostly “things happen to these journalists”, which could reasonably describe any plot involving journalists, but other films have a narrative, a through-line that moves the story from A to B to C and so on. The Killing Fields has no narrative; it’s just “something happens”, then “something else happens”, then “something else happens”. This doesn’t make for a very engaging film, which is unfortunate, because The Killing Fields could have potentially been incredibly engaging, but then I assume the film would have run the risk of being too Hollywoodized or mainstream to make it onto the list. It’s films like this one that seem to point out the formula for making a film that will generally be regarded as a must see film; simply don’t adhere to one formula, even if your film has a complete lack of formula, and it will be such a different experience that critics and editors will inevitably call it “must see”. That seems a little harsh to say about The Killing Fields, or any other film that description could apply to, but watching a large amount of films from a must see list in a (relatively) short amount of time will inexorably bring some cinematic redundancy, as backwards as that may seem to be.
It feels weird for me to say, but this is a film that does just about everything exactly right, but that I still didn’t really find myself caring for. That said, I couldn’t ignore what a hell of a production this was. I shouldn’t say that this is Saving Private Ryan levels of technical achievement, because Saving Private Ryan is still very much a Hollywood film, from the feel to the look, and this is very much a British film, with a sensible way of looking at the conflict, rather than a “hero’s journey” style of story. I would probably be able to recommend this to a pretty wide berth of moviegoers, but it would be difficult, because I don’t think I would include myself among them. Still, this was a heck of a film, and I can certainly appreciate all the work put into it.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10