Netflix scored two huge wins in Beasts of No Nation: Cary Joji Fukunaga and Idris Elba. Fukunaga brings the striking images that made the first season of True Detective to the film, and Idris Elba infuses an utterly unsympathetic character with a very real humanity. Fukunaga approaches the subject matter not with the care one might expect, rather taking an Apocalypse Now route and going for gonzo shots and rapidly changing color palettes. Its fantastic to look at, but any emotional effectiveness it has is the bare minimum that comes with the subject matter.
The film has essentially two characters given a chance at having a personality: Elba’s commandant and Abraham Attah’s child rebel soldier Agu. The film does excellent work at setting the political stage without ever approaching specificity; as it is filtered through the eyes of a child, the big-picture politics are rendered moot (as they may well be in reality anyhow). The chaos that allows a monster like the commandant to thrive is well motivated though, painting a world where anything approaching militaristic is by default evil. It’s sickeningly believable that young men and boys would be sold on the idea of rebellion, and Elba’s charisma and screen presence give it the perfect salesman. But its when commandant’s veneer of control is peeled away to reveal a pathetic creature that the movie becomes truly intriguing.
However, no other characters fulfill the same potential. Agu is stoic, which is fine, but his friend and confidant is a character named Strika whose sole character trait is that he’s even more stoic. This leaves much of the development to heavy-handed voiceovers, which approach some form of profundity occasionally but repeat themselves too often. Its a shame, because visually the battalion is a wonder, a version of the Lost Boys whose moral compass has been ripped away. Their clothing gives hints at their more comfortable past, is colourful in ways that suggest a child lives somewhere inside, and only makes it more terrifying when they do the awful things they do.
There’s a lot to really like about Beasts of No Nation, but there likely could have been a lot more. Ironically, the selling point of the fantastic cinematography would have been much better served by a cinema treatment rather than from your couch on Netflix. On a smaller screen, Beasts is too easy to distance yourself from.
Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring Abraham Attah and Idris Elba
Rotten Tomatoes (91%)