Review: Beasts of No Nation (TIFF 2015)
PLOT: After his family is slaughtered in the chaos of a West African civil war, a young boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) falls under the sway of a mercenary leader known only as The Commandant (Idris Elba) and becomes a child soldier.
REVIEW: By choosing Cary Fukunaga's BEASTS OF NO NATION as the first Netflix original film, the streaming service is making a bold statement about the kind of work they're looking to produce. Fukunaga's film, which was an acquisition rather than something made in-house, is a singular accomplishment and one of the year's best films. Once this hits Netflix on October 16th, audiences world-wide will have one of the most upsetting but deeply important pieces of cinema in recent memory beamed right into their households. Most certainly, it's a film everyone should watch and one that hopefully won't be overlooked on the awards circuit either, with its quality rivaling that of any recent contenders like BIRDMAN or BOYHOOD.
Given the premise, BEASTS OF NO NATION is certainly not an easy film to watch – nor should it be. However, Fukunaga's film is more than just a brutal onslaught of numbing violence. While a pessimistic tale, Fukunaga humanizes the story in a way that makes young Agu's journey into the nightmare of war all the more upsetting, while also making audiences understand that despite the title, the children here are not beasts by any stretch of the word, even if the things they're made to do are monstrous.
Young Abraham Attah's performance as Agu is incendiary, with early scenes depicting him as the happy child of a local school-teacher. A mischievous kid, he plays pranks with his buddies, hustles UN forces for cash and jokes around with his older brother until violence reigns down on his village. Within moments, Agu has one father taken away from him, only to be replaced by another, Idris Elba's Commandant.
Elba's performance here is absolutely striking. A giant of a man, Elba resembles a God-like figure among his undernourished soldiers. While presumably uneducated, he possesses a natural intellect and is a born leader. Shockingly, Elba (thanks also to Fukunaga's screenplay – based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala) manages to humanize The Commandant, despite his monstrous actions which included coercing sexual favors from the boys in his charge, introducing them to heroin, and forcing them to murder helpless civilians. It would have been easy to make him come-off as satanic, but instead he comes off as the product of war, in that he's a man who's spent his whole life killing and simply doesn't comprehend any other way of life.
Given how incredibly unnerving the subject is, the fact that Fukunaga's film is so absorbing is a major feat. Acting as his own DP, BEASTS OF NO NATION is a dazzling film to watch. It's a shame most viewers will only see this at home, as certain set-pieces come off as extremely striking on the big-screen, such as a violent battle where Fukunaga shifts the color palette to convey the changed consciousness of the soldiers, all of whom are keyed up on heroin. The musical score by Dan Romer (composer of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD) is among the best in recent memory, with the traditional African sounds of Agu's village life giving way to the hallucinogenic electronica as Agu's violent odyssey begins.
While best appreciated on the big-screen, the upside of a Netflix bow is that there's going to be a huge audience for BEASTS OF NO NATION. It really is mandatory viewing, in that it's a true cinematic work of art and an important chronicle of a very real, very tragic reality. Watch this and be stunned. It's a film you won't be able to shake for awhile afterwards.
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