Beasts of Netflix Nation

Beasts of No Nation
(USA, 133 min.)
Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga
Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba
Beasts of No Nation, for better or for worse, primarily generates discussion for being Netflix’s first big dramatic feature film release, rather than being a searing drama about child soldiers. Let’s just acknowledge that aspect of the film from the outset. It’s admirable that Netflix wants to take a gamble on a film like Beasts of No Nation and defy the world of the theatrical release to bring this story into the homes of viewers, although one cannot overlook the fact that child soldiers are being overshadowed by streaming numbers.

However, the dramatic heft of Beasts of No Nation really demands the scope of a theatrical experience to do its subject justice. There are only a handful of films I’ve watched as an online screener or as a home video release and finished it thinking, “Damn, I wish I watched that on a big screen.” Beasts of No Nation is atop such a list. Rather than enjoying it at home on a decently sized screen with the sounds of gunshots and murder turned to a reasonable volume so as to avoid waking the cat, the film screams for the fully immersive sensations of a theatrical film experience to best replicate the hell that child soldier Agu (Abraham Attah) undergoes. Put another way, Beasts of No Nation reminds me why I cancelled by Netflix account last year: movies are better on the big screen.

This adaptation of the novel by Uzodinma Iweala finds the right visual complement to the author’s lyrical style and it adopts every instance of passive tense that graces Agu’s narrative.  However, the film adopts the novel’s greatest shortcoming too, which is the relentless use of passive tense. While it serves a thematic purpose, the frequent reminders of the child’s passivity, rendered in comments of “I am walking,” “I am running,” “I am fighting,” “I am shooting,” etc. are just as cumbersome on screen as on the page. The adaptation, awkward verbiage aside, also bloats the narrative of Iweala’s beautifully brief book, for the film runs a full 135 minutes whereas the book barely covers 135 pages. The script by Carey Fukunaga meanders and repeats itself with a lack of focus. The book, on the other hand, is as pointed as a bullet.

Fukunaga excels, however, in creating visual hell with disorienting and chaotic cinematography that captures beauty and horror alike in blood-spattered images of the anonymous African country in which Agu becomes a soldier in the rebel army under duress following the murder of his family. Corpses riddled the frame while lush elements of the natural landscape create beautifully foreboding surroundings. Long takes are plentiful, which fans of Fukunaga’s work on True Detective will admire. Sweeping shots let colours flow with brutally vivid compositions of life and death, like one memorable shot in which rain spatters the ground following a ruthless slaughter and it looks as if blood rains from the sky. These images all look nice on the small screen, but they’d look even better in their full scope.

Beasts of No Nation creates an elliptic, almost feverish form as Agu finds himself overwhelmed by the horrors of the rebel army. The film never quite finds the same psychology that Iweala creates in his prose, and the lethargic narrative prevents it from achieving the same visceral and emotional pull as Kim Nguyen’s comparable War Witch does, but Fukunaga draws two formidable performances from his stars. Beasts of No Nation has a masterful hero/villain dynamic between Agu and the fearsome Commandant (Idris Elba). Agu commands the screen with power and wisdom beyond his years, while Elba completely submerses himself in the role of the ruthless war criminal. Gruff and speaking with an accent that tells Commandant’s lack of education and frequent intoxication, Elba is fierce and intimidating. It’s hard to imagine that this actor so greatly embodied kindness and goodwill of Nelson Mandela.

The film’s graphic violence offers a different kind of horror, though, as the jarring brutality of the film is often too much to bear. The soldiers’ use of machetes is bluntly gut-wrenching, especially the hack job of Agu’s first kill that forces him to whack a man on the temple with a blunt blade. The film cuts with the horrific nature of the deeds burdened upon the child soldiers. On the other hand, Fukunaga sometimes appropriates the violence as shock value or visual poetry. Take the aforementioned shot of the sanguineous precipitation, which is as feels as inappropriate as it does evocative. Rather than feel repulsed or moved to action, one often feels conflicted by the film’s inconsistency.

Political films are a hallmark of the Netflix originals, though, with films like The Square offering film equals to Netflix’s original programming like House of Cards. The streamer remains best for documentaries on the film front, as Netflix’s own What Happened, Miss Simone? remains one of the best films of the year and does its subject justice on the small screen because Liz Garbus finds an intimate form that translates well to home viewing. Netflix excels with original features on the documentary front, so here’s hoping that their next dramatic venture doesn’t leave one running for the theatres.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Beasts of No Nation is streaming on Netflix.