Saturday, December 19, 2015

'Beasts of No Nation': Netflix Takes A Big Gamble [Guest Poster: Jon]


Netflix has come a long way within the last few years. Since starting as a DVD rental service, it's become the biggest streaming service in the world, creating original content that’s garnered critical acclaim, accolades, and a cultural landmark for binge-watching. After dabbling in creating original TV shows, documentaries, and comedy specials, the service finally jumps into the film business with their first narrative film, and it definitely leaves an impact.

Beasts of No Nation tells the tale of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young African boy living in a small village with his family. During this time, civil war is unleashed across the continent, as rebel forces forcibly conscript child soldiers into their war. When his village comes under attack by the rebels, Agu stays behind with his father and brother, while his mother and two younger children are whisked to safety. However, Agu’s father and brother are both killed by the rebels, leaving Agu alone. Agu then comes across a faction called the NDF, led by the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba). The Commandant takes Agu under his wing. We are soon treated to the horrors of violence and war, as seen through Agu’s eyes, as he begins to lose his innocence.

Netflix made a risky move in releasing this film on its streaming service the same weekend it opened in theaters. While it was considered a box office bomb, it garnered major awards attention from the Screen Actors Guild, where it was nominated for Best Ensemble and Best Supporting Actor for Idris Elba, and from the Golden Globes, where Idris Elba was once again nominated for Best Supporting Actor. While Netflix does not release their streaming numbers, one can assume it did well and caught the attention of these voting bodies.

Luckily, the film is perhaps one of the most terrifying, yet hauntingly beautiful films I’ve seen in years, anchored by two incredibly strong and heartbreaking performances. Attah is captivating, as well as heartbreaking, in the role of Agu. The viewers become so entranced by this character’s journey from boy to man. Yet at the same time, it’s just devastating to watch. You literally see the happiness and serenity this young child had in his life time get extinguished. It’s heartbreaking to see this boy lose the very essence of childhood and having to grow up way too quickly. Attah manages to capture that loss easily, as he shows the world weariness and numbness of what the character experiences, especially at the end.

Then you have Idris Elba as Commandant. Elba gives perhaps one of the best performances of his career with this role. As the Commandant, Elba manages to be ruthless yet also charismatic and headstrong, as seen in one scene where the Commandant rallies his troops to take the bridge. Elba conveys the belief that this man has within his cause incredibly well. We know that Commandant strives to make his unit the best not only to prove himself in the eyes of the leaders of the rebellion, but also because he wants prove to himself within his own principles.

The scenes between Attah and Elba are some of the most mesmerizing, if only just to see these two act off each other. The relationship between these two is a twisted version of a father-son relationship. The word “twisted” is used because of certain…elements...that are revealed regarding the Commandant. However, while Commandant sees Agu as a soldier to train, Agu sees him as a strange version of a father figure, even if that father figure is showing him a different world around him.

The other big standout of the film is director Cary Joji Fukunaga, previously known for directing the entire first season of the hit HBO show True Detective. Here, Fukunaga gets to push his directing and writing talents to the limit. On the directing side, the film is utterly gorgeous to look at. Fukunaga shoots the film in an almost hauntingly beautiful way. A standout image is seeing a young child solider wade through a dirt-red trench. What’s so breathtaking is how much the red stands out, as if to further emphasize the horror of war.

Speaking of the horror of war, Fukunaga’s script is a deeply beautiful piece about the horrors of war and how deep of an effect they can have on the world around you. What makes it even more surprising is that it’s through the eyes of a child, thereby showing us the loss of youth and wonderment. Yet the film ends on a hopeful note, surprisingly. Without spoiling the end, it ends on a note that maybe some can be redeemed, despite the atrocities they’ve committed.

Overall, Beasts of No Nation is a haunting, eloquent, and thrilling piece of filmmaking that deserves to be seen. The film, backed by excellent direction from Fukunaga and excellent performances, is a strong turn for Netflix and a hopeful look into what’s to come from the streaming giant.

GRADE: A-

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