Netflix has thrown their hat into the ring of feature filmmaking with their first movie, Beasts of No Nation, and it’s certainly evident, that Netflix is capable of playing with the big boys. That said, the subject matter of Beasts of No Nation makes it a very difficult movie to watch, especially if you’re used to watching the types of movies Hollywood typically churns out. What Beasts of No Nation offers that Hollywood often doesn’t, is a Moonstruck-like, slap-in-the-face, to snap out of our all too often, self-centered lives. Beasts transports the viewer into a world so far away from the norms of American culture, that it will probably turn many people off from ever even viewing it. What a mistake that will be for those people and for their humanity. Yes, for their humanity. Beasts of No Nation is THAT powerful. While this is not your typical popcorn or first date type movie to say the least, it is a movie that everyone should watch, so that it opens up and expands discourse on the all too horrific realities of a civil war worn torn Africa, whose armies indoctrinate child soldiers as methodically and casually as they implement guns and ammunition into their military arsenal. Pretty heavy stuff, I know. It gets heavier, but I don’t want to offer any spoilers. Here’s a brief synopsis:
Beasts of No Nation takes place in a fictionalized African village and tells the story of a nine year old boy named Agu (with an Award worthy performance from first timer Abraham Attah). Agu lives in an African village that lies within a designated neutral zone between two warring states…as the war spills over into the village, the young, displaced Agu must flee into the bush in order to save his own life. Alone and traumatized, Agu is caught by a group of rebel mercenaries who are out for revenge against the warring states that have killed so many of their people. The rebel mercenaries are led by the charismatic and fearsome Commandant (an Award worthy performance played by Idris Elba) who takes a liking to the young Agu, sparing his life and indoctrinating the child (along with other children) into his rebel army. The initiation and training process is both physically dangerous and brutally extreme. Agu is transformed from an innocent, scared child, into a stone cold, ruthless soldier, as he and his fellow soldiers set out to destroy the military forces that the Commandant deems the enemy.
While Beasts is based on a fictional 2005 novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala, there is no doubt that the characters and storylines are all drawn from the real life crisis of wars, civil wars and genocides that have been occurring across the African continent throughout its disturbingly bloody history. As unapologetically violent and intimately upsetting as the storylines and plot are, visually the movie is masterfully crafted to allow much of the horrific content to be played out in the viewer’s imagination, rather than showing it onscreen. This is smart and serves the movie well and certainly showcases the talents and sensitivities of director Cary Joji Fukanaga (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre, 16 episodes of True Detective), as do the performances of the entire cast. Cinematically, the movie is hauntingly beautiful and fits the themes of the movie like a glove. Agu narrates throughout the film via voice over, which grounds the movie with an innocence and insight into the story’s brutal content. Where narrative voice over is an often looked down upon tool in filmmaking, for Beasts of No Nation it serves to balance the movie perfectly. I did feel the movie’s focus was slightly muddied towards the last act as there seemed to be an unnecessary scene or two, but this certainly doesn’t ruin the story or the movie as a whole. Beasts of No Nation is an epic tour-de-force that should earn Netflix feature filmmaking legitimacy, and quite possibly, a few award nominations.