It’s a bit of a shame that Beasts of No Nation may end up going down in history more for the way it was released than it’s content. Being the first film to be released theatrically and on Netflix is a pretty big deal after all, even if the benefit clearly streams in the latter party’s direction. With that said, Netflix certainly could have picked a fluff piece to test this new strategy out, and boy did they do the opposite. True Detective Season One helmer’s film is an unflinching look at the atrocities of war, that pulls back the curtain on one of it’s most despicable practices. There have been plenty of films with child soldiers in the background, but here we get to see the indoctrination that crushes their innocence so completely.
The story takes place in an intentionally vague African country, and centers on a young boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) who lives in relative poverty in a buffer zone for a raging civil war. One day, the military storms through the village, and murders hundreds of people including Agu’s father. Separated from his mother, Agu finds himself swept up in a group of rebels called the NDF lead by the charismatic and vicious Commandant (Idris Elba). These men will use anybody, regardless of age as a soldier. As Agu starts to be further and further conditioned to this violence as the NDF moves through the country, he starts to loose his soul.
While everybody in the cast is incredibly authentic, there are two performances that pull ahead of the pack for very different reasons. Young Abraham Attah’s Agu is forced to endure a great deal of suffering to ultimately complete his decent into soullessness, and he sells every inch of it. We see the pain written all over his face, particularly when he is first forced to kill his fellow man. It’s one of the best performances by a young actor in recent years. Elba is given a far less subtle character, but he commands the audience as much as the soldiers under his thumb. While his Commandant initially seems to just be made up of a series of impassioned speech, he starts to form a fascinating bond with Agu that gives him a great deal of depth. While he’s forcing his young captives to do horrible things, he does seem to genuinely care about Agu in particular to some degree. He sees himself as some sort of father figure to these boys, and whether or not Agu sees him the same way is mostly left up to the audience to decide.
Cary Fukunaga who wrote, directed, and shot this film, proves himself to be a major force to be reckoned with here. Visually, this film is absolutely stunning. Employing a deft mix of crisp steady-cam and documentary style hand-held, each scene makes the viewer feel as if they are right there with these soldiers. The action sequences here are not only thrilling in a visceral sense, but utterly shocking in a sobering way. There is a whole lot of brutality and inhumanity in this film, and Fukunaga knows exactly what to show and what to cut away from for maximum impact. Even if the acting wasn’t as spectacular as it is, we would feel every inch of these people’s pain simply by the way we’re forced to look at them through Fukunaga’s camera.
As masterfully crafted as this film is, there are some pacing issues that ultimately keep it from really flying over the top. After Agu joins the NDF, the film settles into a somewhat monotonous rhythm which ensures that about half of it’s sequences of brutality are as effective as they should be. There’s only so much atrocity I can take without anything breaking it up before I start thinking about what else I could be watching, no matter how good the film is. Nothing in the film is crafted any worse than the whole, but some trimming to bring out the key plot points would make it feel like a bit less of a slog. With that said, the point where the movie does decide to end is extremely effective, even if it’s not the utterly hopeful conclusion that many will desire after being put so completely through the ringer.
Beasts of No Nation is one of the most technically well-crafted and intense films of the year. The performances are stellar, and the capturing of the setting by Fukunaga is nothing short of masterful. Even so, it is a bit too sluggishly paced to really knock it’s emotional impact out of the park, and ultimately comes across a bit one note. Even so, it does deserve to be seen, if nothing else so that Netflix will continue to give risky and powerful films like this a home that it may not find with a conventional studio.