Since Netflix is starting to produce some original programming of new series like Jessica Jones and Daredevil and full length feature films, it is a good time to look at one of their first films to hit the screen; Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel, Beasts of No Nation. Iweala is a Nigerian American author who was inspired by fellow Nigerian musician Fela Kuti’s album of the same name. Kuti is considered to be one of the pioneers of the Afrobeat music and a human rights advocate. Kuti unfortunately passed away in August of 1997 from complications from AIDS but Iweala was so inspired by Kuti’s music that he was able to write a novel that compliments the music.
Beasts of No Nation tells the story of a young boy named Agu, who has a simple and poor life living with his family in a “buffer zone”. It is a sanctuary on a spot of land untouched by the civil war raging in the country. The country in this film is never named (hence the film’s title) but this film could take place just about anywhere and still ring authentically true. When the civil war collapses the country into chaos, Agu is separated from his family and finds himself in the jungle, by himself with nothing but the clothes on his back. He is captured by a band of rebel forces which are commanded by a charismatic leader who is known only as Commandant (Idris Elba). Once Agu has been initiated into the rebel group his life takes a drastically horrible turn, as he is introduced to the horrors of war.
Much has been said about Idris Elba’s magnetic performance and he is awesome in this film. But for me, the real star is Abraham Attah as Agu. He is magnificent and should be considered for a Best Actor Oscar. He captures every emotion a young boy would capture in a situation like this. Agu is a carefree boy but transforms into a hardened soldier who does unspeakable acts. Yet, he still tries to understand what he is doing and tries to hide from the fact that he is ashamed of what he becomes. Attah’s performance is multi layered, absolutely heartbreaking and makes you feel every moment of it. Elba is terrific and shows why he is one of the best actors working today. This is their film to shine in and shine, they do. They are not the good guys or the bad and this film does not draw any conclusions as to who is right and who is wrong. There are enough monsters and depravity on all sides to go around. It is a rather simple story that is told.
Cary Joji Fukunaga directed and adapted the screenplay from the novel and he wastes no time in his setup of the characters. They are simple people who want nothing more than to be happy and live a good life and he really captures the experiences in gruesome detail. He does not exploit them, though. These seem as real as any characters could be in the living hell that surrounds them. Their actions come from a strong human story that Fukunaga has really captured the essence of. Up until this film, he has only directed one other feature film, 2011’s Jane Eyre and season one of HBO’s drama True Detective, but Cary has a great eye and ear for characters, how they talk and react to each other. He does a great job showing how their situations and the decisions they make alter everyone’s lives and the lives around them. Sometimes with catastrophic consequences. He digs deep into what makes them tick and for the viewer, it is a visual feast for the eyes and ears of the viewers. Cary was also the cinematographer for Beasts of No Nation and he has shot a lush but uncompromising and gritty film.
Beasts of No Nation is a powerful and raw film. Extremely well acted, written and directed. It also has a beautiful score composed by Dan Romer that is worth checking out. It features some very graphic battle sequences but it is never gratuitous. Nothing feels forced or fake in this film and it is one of the best films of 2015. After sitting through Netflix’s other feature length film, Adam Sandler’s Ridiculous 6 (talk about a crapfest), I think Netflix owed us one. Beasts of No Nation makes us even.
Beasts of No Nation- ***** out of 5
Beasts of No Nation- Rated R for language, violence and gore
Beasts of No Nation- Run Time is 137 minutes
Beasts of No Nation is available from Netflix with your paid subscription for the service.