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Beasts of No Nation (Netflix)
Movie Reviews

Beasts of No Nation (Netflix)

A horrendous and raw experience, coupled by powerful performances and precise direction. One of the year’s best.

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It’s unfortunate that a film like Beasts of No Nation should bear a stigma before it even gets out of the gate. Acquired by streaming giant Netflix, the film’s hybrid release could shape, or even revolutionize, the way Hollywood and others schedule and shuffle their films in the future. It’s release date of October 16th means that not only will a select number of theaters play it, but it’s also being released simultaneously at home exclusively for Netflix users.

The film’s hybrid release has the possibility to shape, or even revolutionize, the way Hollywood and others schedule and shuffle their films in the future. As you might have guessed, this experiment wasn’t taken kindly. Four of that nation’s biggest theater chains – AMC, Carmike, Cinemark, and Regal – have since boycotted the film for violating what’s long been the norm: a 90-day probationary period between film’s initial theatrical and non-theatrical release dates.

This could spell trouble for the film’s award aspirations. Beasts of No Nation was shown at both the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals this year and received positive reviews – though its dreams of Oscar Gold may be squandered by how strongly major theaters have reacted and barred the film. According to the Academy Awards’ official website under Rule 2 of eligibility a film is required to be released “for paid admission in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County…for a qualifying run of at least seven consecutive days.

Furthermore, the Academy defines “non-theatrical” release as those films released in any of the following platforms: “broadcast and cable television, PPV/VOD, DVD distribution, [or] internet transmission.” However, a film can still qualify through the exception if its congruent non-theatrical release is “on or after the first day of their Los Angeles County qualifying run.” Nevertheless, this won’t be a case where the film is inaccessible despite it’s very limited theatrical release and hopefully the theater chains actions don’t hinder the films aspirations as the film definitely deserves some award recognition.

But back to the film itself. Based on Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name and written and directed by Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, True Detective), Beasts of No Nation is a powerful and compelling film about a brutal civil war in an unnamed African nation. It follows child soldier Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy whose village is ransacked by the government in an attempt to uproot possible rebels. His brother is gunned down while his mother is forced to flee without him, abandoning Agu in a scenario that is beyond her control and belief.

On the run, Agu is “saved” by Commandant (Idris Elba) – a confident and manipulative leader – who quickly exploits Agu’s feelings of revenge and recruits him into his army. As a surrogate father figure to the men and the boys he leads, Commandant also takes a particular liking to Agu – seeing him as his own son.

Idris Elba’s performance is cold and manipulative, understated but cruel. He’s a magician that holds a mesmerizing allure and power over those in his command, saying just the right words to captivate his jaded soldiers. Elba’s performance is nothing short of magnetic. His Commandant combines mystical elements with harsh military tactics and initiations that often resemble street gang initiations; his word unchallenged and contradicted, instilling in his child soldiers that while they are invincible, they should also never forget who their leader is.

Trapped in a quagmire of Kill or Be Killed, Agu faces no other choice but to perpetuate the violence passed down from those in power, continuing a vicious cycle of unending violence. He chooses life at the expense of others.

Aga – at this point so far gone psychologically – laments with cold indifference that when the war is over he will be unable to go back to doing things that normal children do. Abraham Attah is the crux of the film, centering it with amazing talent, performing the duality of a child losing everything while simultaneously becoming a murderer.

As the men traverse their nation they wreak the same havoc their paranoid government inflicts on its citizens. What’s striking and revelatory about the film is how, much like the 2005 book, Fukunaga avoids assigning blame on any specific nation. These war mongers belong to no nation – true beasts of no nation – as the title proclaims, deterring societal progress in favor of destruction of the world completely in the hands of its inhabitants.

Fukunaga’s images look and feel much like any third-world country ensconced in conflict in the last fifty years. It’s easy to transplant any nation into Fukunaga’s scenarios, and not just African nations: El Salvador, Chile, Vietnam – the similarities in those conflicts and Fukunaga’s film are far from accidental.

A film about childhood loss will have a tendency of being soul crushing, and that’s no exception here. We watch as Agu’s humanity, something he can barely fathom as a child, let alone one in wartime, slowly slip away from him as he continues under the leadership of the Commandant. However, Fukunaga finds a faint glimmer of hope beyond callous murder, burned villages, and childhood conscription, with a slight sobering optimism by the end of the film that is somber while acknowledging that the world is still far from perfect.

The film is a compelling, albeit horrendous and raw experience, but Agu’s narration helps us know throughout that he still contains a conscious and that his brutal actions, which include hacking to death a seemingly nonpartisan engineer working on a nearby bridge, are not those that come from within, but external influences guided by the manipulative force of the Commandant.

Agu’s hope that keeps him alive is the search for his mother even when it appears that he loses faith in God – or perhaps God has lost faith in Agu. His narration shifts from revealing his actions to God, asking if He is watching his unforgivable action, to revealing his thoughts to his mother, wherever she may be.

This is definitely Fukunaga’s existential world; giving up on a God that doesn’t seem to care, Aga pleads for his mother, the only person that could love him unconditionally, despite what he has done to survive.

Beasts of No Nation is powerful and thought provoking about a continent’s politics but also about persistent wars that have crafted history books inked in the blood of senseless killings. Directing from an agonizing and unrelenting script Fukunaga handles dark themes of a world and humanity crafted, not by a God, but by our own hand, with masterful preciseness. Abraham Attah gives a heartbreaking performance while Idris Elba continues to prove he’s one of the most charismatic leading actors out there. The film is easily one of the year’s best and not to be missed, a monumental achievement from Fukunaga, who continues to impress with smart and compelling direction tackling big existential themes.

About the Author: J. Carlos Menjivar