Twelve dollars. Paper tickets. Popcorn, soda, synthetic butter concentrate. Well-worn carpeted floors, soundproof walls, a zit-speckled teenager in a polo shirt directing you to the correct theater. This is how we’ve always seen movies. However, the release of Netflix’s breathtaking first original narrative film, “Beasts of No Nation,” could mark the beginning of a new era of cinema.
Though the film is in limited theatrical release (so it qualifies for awards), it is simultaneously streaming on Netflix. This is significant because unless they are straight-to-DVD B movies, theater chains typically have a 90-day period of exclusive screening rights. If it’s a financial success, the film could usher in a new way of viewing films. Instead of seeing it projected on the wall of a pitch-black theater, I watched it on a 24″ TV in my dimly-lit living room.
But the different atmosphere did not diminish the film in the least. Adapted from the acclaimed Uzodinma Iweala novel of the same name, “Beasts of No Nation” is a visually striking, meticulously crafted, poignant portrait of lost innocence, the brutality of war and the flawed concept of the nation-state.
The story focuses on Agu (Abraham Attah), a good-hearted but mischievous boy in an unnamed, war-plagued West African country. He spends his days getting under his brother’s skin and playing soccer with his schoolmates, relatively sheltered from the bloody conflict lurking beyond the borders of his village. But when the conflict finally reaches his home, his mother flees to the safety of the capital and his father and brother are killed. He is forced to join the ranks of a brutal stateless battalion of boys and teenagers, led by their charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba), in order to survive.
The performances, particularly those from Elba and Attah, are phenomenal. Attah shines in his first film role, starting off as an innocent boy and ending, as he states in the final scene, an old man haunted by the atrocities he has committed. Elba’s Commandant is unlike on-screen dictators we’ve seen in the past. Though he kills, rapes and pillages, he never comes off as a monster. He is deeply flawed, ruthlessly ambitious and remorselessly cruel, for sure, but he has thoughts, dreams and fears just like anyone else. And that sliver of humanity makes him all the more terrifying.
But it is because of director/screenwriter/cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga (“True Detective”) that the movie is as good as it is. With his complete creative control (the director, writer and cinematographer are typically three different people), Fukunaga integrates narrative and photography so seamlessly that they are inseparable. The visuals almost tell more of the story than the script. Though at times this approach can bog down the film’s pacing (the film clocks in at two hours and 17 minutes), the depth and beauty it creates make the wait well worth it. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the shots Fukunaga constructs are worth millions.
The story itself, though not without its problems, stands apart from many Western films about Africa. Yes, it does continue in the Hollywood tradition of portraying the continent as an aesthetically rich but tragically squalid hellhole and, in doing so, fails to correct global misperceptions about the region. However, Fukunaga’s clinical style does not exploit or relish in the squalor. This allows the audience to, rather than get caught up in the misery, acknowledge the greater social and political forces at work.
In addition, all of the characters maintain a level of agency not often seen in Western African narratives. There is (thankfully) no white savior; all of the characters are black Africans. And, though things are perhaps inaccurately bleak, nobody comes off as entirely helpless. Even Agu, a child soldier forced into appalling circumstances — mere sympathy Oscar bait in the hands of lesser storytellers — not only regains his agency at the end of the film, but fights for it all the way through.
“Beasts of No Nation” is an ideal first film for Netflix as a modern film at the forefront of the modern age of movie-watching. It takes outlandish, horrific circumstances and, rather than exploiting them for sympathy or shock, extracts their universality and paints a vivid, moving picture.