‘Beasts of No Nation’ Review: Netflix Brings an Oscar Contender to Your TV
LOS ANGELES — When Cary Fukanaga’s gut-punching child soldier drama Beasts of No Nation opens Friday in theaters and on Netflix, a great experiment begins. A couple of them, really.
First, we’ll see the immediate results of Netflix’s mold-breaking theatrical distribution model. Then we’ll see its effect, if any, on the awards game.
Beasts is Netflix’ first true film release, which can be seen at 31 locations in the United States’ top 30 markets — though you won’t find it at the big theater chains, which are holding fast to their insistence on at least a 90-day window of exclusivity. That’s just standard policy for any movie that jumps the gun into home distribution, strictly enforced by the likes of AMC, Regal et al. And it looks like it’ll stay that way for a little while.
Independents and smaller chains like Landmark don’t mind, however, which means we’ll soon find out how many folks will actually pay $10 or more to see a violent war saga that’s available to stream at a theater that’s probably not close by. “Not too many” is the likely answer.
That’s probably just fine with Netflix, which is putting Beasts in theaters not for box office returns — much of which will probably come from folks who didn’t realize it was also playing at home — but for an Oscar qualifying run.
And rightly so. Beasts of No Nation, which screened at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, has the sheen of an award-worthy film. Fukanaga (Jane Eyre, True Detective Season 1) wrote, directed and shot the movie for Netflix, which crashed the Emmys with House of Cards and is now gunning for a seat at the Academy Awards.
In that regard, all eyes are first on Idris Elba, who will probably be pushed as a lead actor — though that’s an awkward fit, if not a complete miscalculation. The film really belongs to Abraham Attah, the 15-year-old unknown from Ghana who plays Agu, a young boy swept up in a bloody West African conflict when his family is killed by soldiers. He falls in with a band of opposition rebels; he’s made to carry ammunition and, eventually, trained to kill. And he is brilliant.
Attah’s performance is so naturalistic, so present and convincing, that it’s almost impossible to believe that Fukanaga found him on a Ghanaian soccer field. Beasts, which was shot in Ghana, is thoroughly populated with non-actors from similar situations; some, like Attah, are from stable families, others literally from the streets. They’re great across the board, by turns forceful and vulnerable, fierce and fearful and thoroughly believable.
That takes nothing away from Elba, who plays Commandant, the charismatic and chimerical leader of this rag-tag rebel battalion. Elba is so in his element that it’s almost impossible to believe that the 43-year-old Essex, England, native — who trained at the National Youth Music Theatre and is fast emerging as one of Hollywood’s hottest actors — actually has little in common with his costars (though his mother is Ghanian and his father from Sierra Leone).
But Elba doesn’t show up until 30-plus minutes into the story, then disappears with another 30 or so minutes to go. Though he is the Maypole around which everything revolves, this is Agu’s story through and through; the child soldier’s eyes cast our perspective on everything. It is Agu’s experience, not Commandant’s, that is on display for our consideration.
That story is hard to fathom and even harder to watch. Agu is a bright and talented youngster with a loving and supportive multigenerational nuclear family, and Beasts spends just enough time with them for us to realize that, despite their modest means, he is in a very good place. The movie’s establishing sequence is so compelling, so filled with love and charm, that you almost forget that horrors are on the horizon.
When they come, they are a cascade of emotional devastation. It’s impossible to breathe during the attack on Agu’s village, a sequence rippling with tension and explosive release, instantaneous heartbreak and harrowing escape. When it’s over, you feel like you’ve already watched an entire movie — but that’s where the core of Beasts really begins.
During his flight, Agu encounters Elba’s band of rebels in the jungle. By way of Commandant’s shred of humanity, he’s not only spared but taken under wing. At first, there’s something strangely endearing about this dynamic. In part, that’s because the political motivations of these rebels — and the shaky establishment they are fighting — are sketched out in the vaguest possible terms.
In fact, Beasts doesn’t even identify what country we’re in. On one hand, that feels, as we say these days, “problematic”; it’s a generic treatment of West Africa that takes conflict as a given. On the other, it’s an effective way to keep focus on the people with whom we are now embedded. Though they do horrible things along the way, these are human men, whose broader political motivations are buried in favor of their more immediate ones. Maybe they’re the good guys?
This is where Beasts works: You’re rooting for the rebels, though they’re no heroes, or even anti-heroes. Their journey is exciting, their pluck admirable. They very well may be monsters, and often their behavior is monstrous. But like Agu, you’ll go along with it merely to survive what’s in store.
As an emotional ride, Beasts is terrific. Its visual impact, its whiplashing loyalties, its human tragedies mixed with tiny triumphs — all is in concert, an achievement of Fukanaga’s vision and Netflix’s commitment to let him execute it.
But as a story, Beasts of No Nation is more complicated, if not fatally flawed.
Its decision to generalize this war might work creatively, but makes the film feel detached from reality — if not outright cynical and fantastic. Agu’s arc, from stability to bloody chaos and beyond, gives him precious little agency; he’s just doing whatever he has to do in the moment, not making decisions so much as having them forced upon him. And Commandant’s bulldozing will leads him from possible protagonist to highly compromised semi-villain, a journey that’s hardly satisfying. In fact, it’s downright garish and sad.
Even with the benefit of time to think it over, it’s hard to figure out what Beasts is about. Is it an examination of the estimated 300,000 child soldiers in the world? A survival-of-the-human-spirit story? Just another harrowing war film? It’s tough to put your finger on what Fukanaga is trying to say, even though he’s saying it extraordinarily well.
When nominations come around, this is where Beasts may be the most vulnerable.
If the film struggles to get traction — which seems possible — the awards pundit machine will (rightly) suggest that its subversive release pattern and Netflix branding may have dragged it down. Perhaps there’s some truth there, though the Emmys have proved that prestige comes in all packages. In its favor is the fact that Beasts is on Netflix this early in the game may give it a leg up (in contrast to Selma, whose audience was limited last year by its late release and screener snafus).
As Netflix’s awards-film opening salvo, Beasts is worthy — not only as a contender, but as a movie deserving of your time, no matter how you watch it. Which, let’s face it, is going to be on Netflix.