Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Written by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
(based on the novel BEASTS OF NO NATION by Uzodinma Iweala)
Starring: Idris Elba, Kurt Egyiawan, Abraham Attah, Ama K. Abebrese, Kobina Amissa-Sam & Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye
BEASTS OF NO NATION is a film that marks a significant step forward for Netflix as bonafide movie studio. Adapted from the controversial novel of the same name, BEASTS is even more impressive for being an Oscar-caliber war-drama that just happened to debut on a streaming website. Director/writer Cary Joji Fukunaga tackles the novel’s harrowing story with an unwavering eye and powerful performances from his two leads. This movie just might stand alongside HOTEL RWANDA as one of the best African war dramas ever made.
Agu is a young boy living in an unnamed African village. The country is teetering on the edge of civil war. As tensions erupt and his village becomes a corpse-laden battleground, Agu’s family is taken away from him and the young boy finds himself in dire circumstances. In order to stay alive, Agu joins a violent band of rebels and becomes the latest child soldier in a faction led by the fearsome Commandant. We follow Agu’s war-time experience through his perspective, complete with an inner monologue that frequently makes its way into the narrative.
The best two things in BEASTS OF NO NATION come from two very special performances. The first of these is Idris Elba’s Commandant. As the unwavering leader, Elba exudes both charisma and evil at the same time. It’s easy to see why Agu would fall under his influence as the Commandant becomes a surrogate father of sorts. However, in the very next scene, he’s screaming at the child to commit an abominable act of bloodshed. Elba was brave for taking a role that requires us to see him in a very ugly light as a morally reprehensible man whose real intentions aren’t fully revealed until his final scenes. As a result, BEASTS OF NO NATION contains one of the very best performances of 2015.
On the younger side of things, newcomer Abraham Attah delivers the second-best child performance that I’ve seen all year (the first being in ROOM). This film (much like that aforementioned Oscar contender) clearly required putting a kid (in this case, Attah) through some brutal material to bring an honest performance to the screen. It seems to have paid off in spades as Attah is brilliant to behold. The character of Agu has both constant pain behind his eyes as well as a boiling rage for his circumstances. The latter breaks its way to the surface during a couple of key scenes. The film is also narrated by Agu which adds a further sense of corrupted innocence into the chaotic mix of war and death.
Performances aside, BEASTS is remarkably well shot with professional production values that stand alongside pretty much every other big-screen drama to hit during this year’s awards season. This is especially impressive when you consider the film was made on a budget of 6 million and has a number of explosions, gun fights, and one very surreal massacre sequence that come off in a visceral, convincing manner. Aside from one brief scene that looked a little iffy, the film maintains a searing sense of danger lurking around every corner that’s almost akin to FULL METAL JACKET in tone.
My sole complaint with BEASTS OF NO NATION stems from the Idris Elba’s Commandant’s final scenes ending with an apathetic whimper rather than a memorable bang. The movie may have been faithful to its source material (I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know if that is the case), but I feel that this stand-out villain deserved a better final send-off. The ending to the film itself is pretty much perfect as a calm, emotional conclusion to the disturbing storm of violence, death, destruction, and corrupted innocence that the viewer has just witnessed. It sends the viewer off on a better note than they possibly could have expected given how damned dark and brutal the rest of the story is.
Is BEASTS OF NO NATION an easy film to watch? Absolutely not. The subject matter is intense to say the least and the film confronts the viewer by not shying away from the horrors of war, in this case told from the perspective of a child soldier. Is BEASTS OF NO NATION a worthwhile watch? Absolutely! Brought to the screen with professional production values that could easily play on the big screen and fueled by two stellar performances, the film is a powerful war drama unlike any that I’ve ever seen. This confrontational and rewarding film should hopefully garner a couple of Oscar nods and deserves every bit of praise it has received thus far!