Beasts of No Nation has a unique story behind it. Having been shown at the film festivals in Venice and Toronto, it saw a limited theatrical release in October. None of that is of any aberration in the film world; films get shown at festivals and released into theaters all the time. What makes this film unique is that it’s the first feature film to be made and distributed by Netflix. Available now to watch on Netflix, this is a harrowing film that deserves serious award recognition regardless of how people saw the film.
Agu (Abraham Attah) is a young boy living a relatively stable life in a buffer zone with his family in an unnamed African country. However, everything changes when army soldiers come into the buffer zone and start killing some of the citizens in the camp. His mother and younger siblings are taken away somewhere in a car, and his father and older brother are killed by soldiers. Agu then runs away and continues running until he’s captured and taken in by a rebel army of soldiers looking to advance against the opposing army. He’s taken under the wing of the Commandant (Idris Elba) and trained to become a child soldier. From there, nothing is ever the same.
The film, based on the book of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, doesn’t flinch from the horrors that happen as war tears the country apart and leaves swathes of villagers dead in its wake. Writer and director Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective), who’s also the cinematographer of the film, presents violence at its most gruesome. The killings are devastating, and the violence is hard to fathom, especially in scenes such as one where Agu and some other soldiers invade a house where they find a mother and small daughter. The mother is raped and later killed while the daughter is viciously beaten. Fukunaga also throws in some weird flourishes, such as when Agu and another child soldier are chopping a man to death and drops of blood get onto the camera lens, or when the rebels attack a village and the screen is given a pink tint.
Mostly, Fukunaga is to be lauded for constructing a film that will stay with you for days. There are no easy answers to this tragedy, and even when life turns around for Agu, the experiences he has faced haunt him to the core. The acting, as well, is phenomenal. Attah deserves accolades for his unerring portrayal of a child who grows up much too fast and is fundamentally changed by war, underlined by his narration of what he’s going through and how much he has changed. And while we squabble on whether or not Elba will be the next James Bond (he should be!), let’s focus on his performance here, which is reminiscent of Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning performance as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. His charisma masks the fact that he’s leading boys and young men to slaughter innocent people.
Hopefully, the film doesn’t get caught in limbo with awards season. This film is too good to not be considered by the Academy, even if it is a Netflix movie. By this point, the rules dictating who can receive nominations or not are laughably outdated. Even now, films that get released on HBO can’t get nominations from the Academy. Let’s hope, then, that movies like Beasts of No Nation changes the Academy’s mind so it gets the nominations it deserves.