Beasts-of-No-Nation

An auteur-driven feature that bows day and date in theatres and online? Game changer? Perhaps. Milestone? Definitely.  Netflix boldly steps up their content game with Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation”, a low-budget yet visually sprawling film about war-torn Africa, primarily through the eyes of a child soldier named Agu, played by a magnetically sensitive newcomer named Abraham Attah. Fukunaga’s passion project approaches a subject matter so complex that any one filmmaker’s depiction of it may never be enough.  But perhaps simplicity is the point here, and that’s what makes the film so beautiful.  The geo-politics of Africa are so complicated, so tragically entwined with foreign and local interests, that the feature could easily exceed well beyond an already hefty 137 minutes.  There are subtle hints though, such as a curious scene where our charismatic, yet delusional commandant played by Idris Elba, encounters an unassuming Chinese businessman, who is likely an economic influence that keeps the unnamed country in a war-torn state.  But ultimately, we’re seeing this nightmare of senseless civil war through the eyes of a child, and the story keeps us in his universe and allows for real character development, where a more complicated plot would cannibalize that arc. In near real-time, we witness our main character Agu evolve from an innocent boy to stone cold killer, but we stay with him, never turning our back on a sense that he may and will be redeemed. It would be a massive (and typical Hollywood) disservice if this transformation happened over a quick series of montages and ellipses. There’s an art to distilling down, and in my opinion Fukunaga has done it well here.

Visually, the film is arresting from start to finish, always reminding the viewer that Africa is a stunning landscape of extremes. The only criticism I have is the missed opportunity for contrast between the battle scenes and the downtime the soldiers had. The gore reached it’s apex when the rebel battalion ambush the government army on a bridge. This is the classic and obligatory initiation scene, where Agu brutally commits his first murder with a machete, and his innocence is gone forever. But the scene and film as a whole, is almost too careful never to go too far.  One would argue you need to see the extreme, to appreciate the times of non-war in the film, which are aplenty and poetic. Beasts had a subtle kinship to Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line”, in depicting the surreal beauty cloaked in war-torn environments.  There are scenes that are flat out stunning and burned into my memory.  The costuming was also worth noting, which helped craft this distinct world that felt entirely new and unique. Most of all, the film does represent a curious future for content.  The theatre experience will always have its place, but this is the latest domino to fall in favor of the increasing importance and need of OTT (over-the-top) viewing for consumers.  Here’s the trailer for “Beasts of No Nation”…