The times, they are a’changing.
Not even ten years ago, Netflix was a company that rented out DVDs by shipping them to customers who requested them online. Once such a radical idea that it bankrupted the entire video rental industry as we knew it, the very notion of sending optical discs by “snail mail” has already become obsolete in the age of online streaming. But Netflix has evolved with the times. Not only are they now one of the most prominent entertainment streaming companies on the Internet, but they’ve now gotten into the business of financing and releasing their own material.
Thus we have Beasts of No Nation, the very first motion picture distributed solely by Netflix. By which I mean the company, not the service — the company intended to release the film in brick-and-mortar theaters and by online streaming simultaneously. And then the huge theater chains threw a hissy fit over violating the traditional 90-day window of exclusivity for theaters and boycotted the movie. Which either means that the film will never get the chance to see a wide audience, or the huge theater chains are about to prove just how obsolete they’ve become. Either way, it’s sure to be a windfall for the smaller theaters that agreed to screen the movie nonetheless.
On the other hand, it’s not like this movie was ever going to be a crowd pleaser to begin with. The film was written and directed (and shot and produced) by Cary Fukunaga, who’s far from a mainstream favorite. Aside from those who bother to remember that he directed a season of “True Detective”, he’s only known in certain circles as the guy who directed Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and almost adapted Stephen King’s It. Moreover, the film’s only recognizable star is Idris Elba (also a producer), who still hasn’t quite broken into the A-list just yet.
Last but not least, there’s the subject matter.
This film tells the story of Agu, played by debut actor Abraham Attah. Agu is a young boy growing up in a war-torn West African village, but he’s carved out a pretty good life for himself. In the film’s opening minutes, we can see that he has a loving family, he has friends, and they’ve all found ways to have fun and scrape out a living in spite of being dirt-poor and living next door to a war zone. It’s not much, but it’s a happy life.
Until the war finally comes to their village, and Agu’s community is caught between government forces and guerilla rebels. To make a long story short (too late!), Agu’s mother and sister have been evacuated to places unknown; while his father, brother, and grandfather are all gunned down by a military police who’d rather shoot first and ask questions never. Agu himself lives to flee into the nearby wilderness, where he’s picked up by the rebel Native Defense Force. In particular, he’s taken under the wing of a rebel Commandant, played by Elba.
Through the rest of the runtime, we bear witness to Agu’s career as a child soldier. We watch as he’s subjected to all manner of torture and brainwashing as part of his initiation, and that’s before all the fun of brutally murdering people, placing himself in harm’s way, and watching his friends die. To say nothing of that one scene in which it’s heavily implied that Agu is sexually assaulted.
No, this is not a light feel-good movie. This is very much a movie with the message that “war is hell”, and it’s none too subtle about conveying that message.
Watching this film, I was very forcefully reminded of another recent movie that depicted war in a similarly bloody and merciless way: Sicario. I’m not ashamed to say my review of that movie was one of the weaker ones that I’ve written, in large part because there was something about it that I couldn’t put my finger on. And after seeing this movie, I think I’ve finally got it.
Both Sicario and Beasts are about situations with no easy answers, but they depict those situations as if there are no answers at all. We see one side of an issue resort to unspeakable acts of violent brutality, and then we see another side respond by sinking even lower. It’s an escalating conflict of bad vs. evil, in which the winner is whoever can reach the bottom first.
I’m not saying that this can’t make for good drama, or even enlightening drama. But personally, I need something more constructive. I need a coherent explanation about what’s being done to fix the problem, or what the audience can do to fix the problem, or at least how the problem came to exist in the first place. Otherwise, all I’m left with is the message that war is hell, and in this particular case, that recruiting child soldiers to fight in a war is reprehensible. Well, no shit.
In this picture, we only get a very brief explanation about an illegitimate government taking power, and the UN is stepping in to do something or other. That’s it. There’s precious little detail about why these wars are happening, how anyone can stop them from happening, or what can be done to help these children who were forced to pick up an AK-47 and use it against a fellow human being. Hell, there’s even one point when Agu’s rebel battalion quite explicitly stops giving a fuck about the war and they keep on fighting purely for the sake of it.
Without some statement about how things can possibly get better, all we’re left with is the message that things will never get better, and both sides of the war will just keep on fighting and escalating chaos from now ’till Doomsday. And on a deeply philosophical level, I personally find that idea abhorrent.
Thus with this movie (as with Sicario), I’m caught in the awkward position in which I respect a film far more than I like it.
There’s no denying that even if we aren’t led to understand the bigger geopolitical picture of Agu’s journey, the emotional impact of his journey comes through crystal clear. A significant part of that comes from Idris Elba, because of course Stringer Bell can play an effortlessly charismatic leader with questionable motives. At any given moment, the guy can instantly go from warm and fatherly to scary and intimidating to batshit crazy — all of which is exactly what the role needed. And as for young Attah, he does a superlative job of developing Agu, letting us see his emotional and spiritual degradation. I can only hope that the kid has a bright future ahead of him.
On a visual level, the whole movie is gorgeous. Even on those occasions when shaky-cam is abused, it’s done in such a way that it adds to the confusion that Agu is feeling in that moment. And on those one or two occasions when blood splatter flicks on the lens, that helps add to the immersion as well. But those shots are the exception — the vast majority of the film is framed in such a way that we can clearly see the gorgeous African rainforest backdrop and the grungy ruins of civilization. The war scenes are appropriately gruesome, the local spiritual imagery looks beautiful, and the use of color mixing throughout is very impressive.
That said, I have to wonder why a whole battalion of guerilla fighters wear brightly colored clothing, shout every line, loudly sing and dance to boost morale, burn down their entire campsite… and somehow manage to stay hidden. I’m just saying, they don’t exactly make for difficult targets.
Beasts of No Nation is a good movie. I want to be perfectly clear on that. It’s superbly well-crafted, beautifully acted, and the filmmakers are appropriately bold in their depiction of a deeply disturbing subject that needs to be talked about. I just wish that the filmmakers had left us with a better idea of how we the audience are supposed to channel the anger that this movie was so clearly meant to inspire. A contrived happy epilogue tacked on in the last thirty seconds does nothing to tell me what exactly is going on in Africa or how the constant in-fighting is supposed to stop. I know that a problem exists an entire world away, but without some idea of what I could possibly do about it, that knowledge is useless.
Though I disagree with this movie on a deeply philosophical level, my misgivings are entirely personal and I will gladly say that this is well worth a watch. But only if you’re in the mood for a depressing wartime drama.