The incredibly talented Cary Joji Fukunaga wisely opted out of the abysmal second season of True Detective to write, direct and act as DP on this Netflix Original Movie. The film has already garnered a lot of controversy for both the film and it’s director, but not because of objectionable content. Movie theater chains are outright refusing to screen Beasts of No Nation because of it’s premiere on Netflix and the online streaming services vs. movie theater war currently in progress. Movie theater chains fear that they will soon follow Blockbuster into extinction, thanks in part to the convenience of screening a two hour plus movie about genocide in the cozy confines of your own home. Not many people would have left a show as popular as True Detective to venture off into such a situation, but Fukunaga’s gamble pays off with an extremely powerful Beasts of No Nation that’s sure to score a couple of Oscar (yes, it’s eligible) nominations.
Beasts of No Nation follows a seemingly average West African child named Agu (Abraham Attah.) Agu has a loving family and home, all of which changes when a violent anti-government group led by the cruel and calculating Commandant (the always brilliant Idris Elba) recruit him as a child soldier. Agu slowly witnesses his humanity fade away as murder, torture and rape become the daily routine for him. Vying for his commandant’s affections, Agu is manipulated and brainwashed into doing horrible things one of which is only hinted at half-way through but will leave you with a gigantic knot in your stomach.
Fukunaga’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous in capturing the spirit and culture of West Africa and his direction actually succeeds True Detective. The performances Fukunaga is able to get out of his cast are miraculous, especially in the case of young Abraham Attah in the leading role. Most of the time, leading child characters are just a canvas to absorb the atrocities of the story, but Attah brings Agu to life with the kind of maturity and insight usually only a middle-aged veteran would possess. One amazing scene features a teacher trying to prod Agu for answers about being a child soldier. Agu states that she is treating him like he’s a baby and she’s an adult, when in reality taking into consideration everything he’s experienced, she’s the little girl and he’s an old man. This line ends up seeming completely unnecessary, because Attah expresses this so perfectly with his eyes.
All of the technicals from the editing to the sound mixing to the costume design are all outstanding. The only downside to Beasts of No Nation is the story structure. While the dialogue is sharp and overflowing with honesty, most of the beats in the story are predictable and the opening act, which introduces Agu and his family unit, is overlong. This would normally be a deal-breaker, but every other element of Beasts of No Nation is so strong that it can make the most tired of story structures seem completely fresh. I can’t wait to see what Fukunaga brings us next. Grade: A-