So is Cary Fukunaga the first film director to gain widespread popularity only after getting success on a television series? Despite his 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre being pretty fantastic, it wasn’t until the first season of True Detective that the name “Cary Fukunaga” was something that was in everyone’s mind. So, it’s no doubt that there has been great anticipation for his first film after the hit show, Beasts of No Nation, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala. It also holds the distinction of being the first film to get a limited theatrical showings as well as a simultaneous Netflix release, a deal which was made when Netflix purchased the film’s distribution rights and partnered with Bleecker Street for the theatrical release. The success or lack thereof will likely bring some change to how Hollywood deals with distribution, especially with the increasing popularity of Netflix and various other On Demand platforms.
Taking place in an unspecified African country, the film follows a young boy, Abu (Abraham Attah), who finds himself in a horrifying situation after his family is split with his mother and younger siblings leaving with refugees and his father and older brother getting killed by government forces, assuming they were rebels. He ends up getting taken in by a rising rebel faction led by the “Commandant” (Idris Elba). We begin to chronicle his experience as a child soldier with the rebel group.
The film is very much the work of a great filmmaker, there are moments that are powerful, and stick with you long after the film is over. It’s very well shot by Fukunaga himself, portraying a gritty world where each drop of sweat shines from the sunlight, but he also shows a vibrant world where the colors pop with genuine beauty. I especially loved a sequence where the jungle turns completely pink around Abu, which I think might be paying homage to the work of photographer, Richard Mosse. There is no doubt this is a film crafted with passion for the material. Unfortunately, the narrative itself doesn’t quite have the momentum to hold the journey of misery that the film ends up being.
I’m aware it would be insane of me to think the events should be portrayed as anything but bleak and depressing, but there’s not enough in the screenplay to keep an audience invested enough to sit through scene after scene of nonstop harshness and brutality. Not to mention the fact that keeping the country unnamed does unintentionally reinforce the stereotype that all of Africa is an uncivilized, war-torn wasteland. Similarly to another recent disappointment, Sicario, Beasts of No Nation has a valid point to make regarding the world around Abu and the circumstances that have led to his unfortunate position, but there’s not much more to it and the film becomes a bit repetitive as a result. Granted the film provides much more poignancy and nuance than Sicario did, but the lack of energy made it harder to care as the film went on. Around past the halfway point, I basically lost interest in everything going on despite the obvious talent at work.
I also feel like the film was severely cut down, specifically in the last 20 minutes or so. It was like there was a lot of ground that the film simply flew right past and rushed to the end. It really took me out of the film since everything before it had a very slow-burn quality to it. I thought the events that the film covers in the last 20 minutes were fascinating and even enough to a set-up for its own film. This really should have been a three hour epic (and yes, I know that a weird considering I just said I lost interest halfway through, but you get what I mean). It’s an epic story and constricting not only some of the complicated situations that Abu finds himself in, but also the darker psychological/moral elements to a mostly surface-level examination were a disservice to the story. I also didn’t like the voice-over narration. It has nothing to do with the actor’s performance, it was simply unnecessary. The camera work already did a fantastic job at conveying what Abu was thinking and feeling throughout the film, so whenever his voice comes in, it’s kind of a letdown. And if I’m being frank, some of the voice-over dialogue was kind of trite.
But as I mentioned, it’s not all bad, and that’s mostly due to the outstanding performances from everyone in the cast. Everyone in the film adds a sense of authenticity to the story; it never feels like you’re watching actors. Abraham Attah pulls of one of the best child performances in recent memory, and he never pulls any cheap tricks for audience sympathy. If this film ever becomes eligible for major awards contention (if I recall, it is for the Golden Globes), then Abraham Attah is the one thing in the film that absolutely needs to be up for serious consideration. Idris Elba is another highlight, though he is less surprising. He’s basically retreading territory he’s explored before, being a horrible, scary person, but still charismatic enough to keep you interested. I do wish there were more moments with his character to flesh him out more, but the stuff with him that we do get is still good. Everyone else is good, but also fall prey to being cut short on depth since the film is stays exclusively in Abu’s POV.
Throughout Beasts of No Nation there were things that made me want to love the film so bad, but by the time the film was coming to a close I was exhausted, and not in the way that the film intended. If it weren’t for one perfectly delivered monologue by Abraham Attah in the closing minutes of the film, there would be very little saving the final act. Like Abu, Cary Fukunaga seems to have lost himself in the film’s ugliness and despair, and it’s ultimately the film’s downfall. There is no doubt that the film is incredibly well-made and damn near perfectly performed by the cast, to the point where it is still something I would recommend. I just wish Cary Fukunaga’s screenplay was able to have more thematic clarity, narrative momentum and a more fleshed out final act. However, as it stands the film, while still a good film overall, doesn’t reach the level of greatness that it and the audience are hoping for. Though, if Beasts of No Nation is of any consideration, I am definitely willing to see what else Netflix will offer in terms of their original films. 75/100