* (1 star)
wd – Cary Joji Fukunaga (Based on the Novel by Uzodinma Iweala)
ph – Cary Joji Fukunaga
pd – Inbal Weinberg
m – Dan Romer
ed – Pete Beaudreau, Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
cos – Jenny Eagan
p – Cary Joji Fukunaga, Amy Kaufman, Riva Marker, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Cast: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Opeyemi Fagbohungbe, Richard Pepple, Ama Abebrese
Beasts of No Nation is a well-intentioned and proficient film that is generally unremarkable in almost every way. It was writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s passion project for the better part of a decade. It is based on the 2005 novel by Uzodinma Iweala, his debut work. Mr Fukunaga shot the film over the course of 35 days in Ghana, acting as his own Director of Photography. So why is there such a cinematic void at the centre of the film?
The conclusion I have come to is that Beasts of No Nation, as artful as it is, is a film that is full of choices but with no real decisions. What I mean by that is this: Filmmaking is an extensive endeavor, much more than the common civilian realizes. Each day of production, a filmmaker is pelted with a series of choices that he or she must make. All of these choices are made in service of the unifying decision of what that day of production is about. Eventually, it is those decisions that the audience will respond to (or not). So, a bride’s wedding dress was a choice she made, but the fact she is getting married was a decision.
Beasts of No Nation tells the story of Agu (Abraham Attah), a boy in an unnamed West African country who is separated from his mother and sister during a war. After his father and brother are murdered in front of him, he is captured by soldiers and forced to become a tool of war by the rebel forces, led by a Commandant (Idris Elba). His initiation requires him to brutally kill an unarmed engineer with a machete.
From then on Mr Fukunaga goes on to depict several harrowing and violent encounters Agu has with the realities of war, including child rape, slavery and cocaine. Yet none of it particularly resonates. He never stages the gore with a resounding weight, always relying on either long, impersonal Steadicam shots or accented slow-motion. There is a battle sequence in the middle of the film that attempts to impart Agu’s disconnect from reality, comprising of a change of colour palette, that seems totally out-of-place.
Many have made a great fuss about the film’s non-professional child cast, which I find ridiculous. All Mr Fukunaga requires of them is to stare blankly and/or yell as they enact the film’s many unpleasant scenarios. Viewers are reacting to the inherent stress the story depicts, not the performances. I will make mention of Mr Elba and the young Mr Attah, both of whom carry the film through some of its duller scenes of downtime, most of which involve taking drugs.
Beasts of No Nation is the first original film released by Netflix. It has been released simultaneously theatrically and online. Because of its violation of the traditional 90-day release window of exclusivity to cinemas, many large chains have boycotted film, which will most likely result in a poor box-office performance. I mean, remember Citizen Kane? Of course you do.
A film review such as this one is not really a prudent place to opine on whether or not this release plan is appropriate for any film, let alone one this serious and unflinching, and whether or not Netflix is going to become the future of the cinema as we see it. So this critic won’t. Suffice it to say that just as a piece of cinema, I see the film being as forgotten as Hotel Rwanda (2004) and Blood Diamond (2006). Again there is nothing egregious about Beasts of No Nation per se, but if one gets the point in 5 minutes, the question becomes not of value, but of purpose.