Wednesday, November 4, 2015

'Beasts of No Nation' review

The most disappointing part about Beasts of No Nation is the way that it was released. Not that the Netflix premiere did anything to harm the film- there is virtually no way to change the haunting power of Cary Fukunaga's war masterpiece- but it distracted from the movie itself, instead focusing all of the attention on the revolutionary way that the disturbing drama was being distributed to audiences. As you probably know, Netflix acquired the rights to the film earlier this year, promoting it as the first original motion picture from the streaming-based studio. Major theater chains revolted, Fukunaga seemed conflicted and the entertainment media jumped on the news as another development in the ever-changing film distribution environment.

But little has been said about the film itself, and even less about how it is certainly one of the best motion pictures of the year. Beasts of No Nation is set in an anonymous African nation and tells the story of Agu (Abraham Attah), an enslaved child soldier, stuck under the reign of Commandant (Idris Elba), a terrifying, yet occasionally benevolent ruler who seems to take Agu under his wing. Both excruciating and mesmerizing in equal measure, Beasts of No Nation is one of the most gorgeously shot and brilliantly performed films in recent memory and manages to stand with the best war dramas of all time. It is truly a unique filmgoing experience and one that will not be easy for audience members to forget.

At the start of Beasts of No Nation, Agu (Attah) is a very normal child living in incredibly unfortunate circumstances. He's young, healthy and happy and ventures around his anonymous African home with his friends, attempting to sell unique and imaginative products to the soldiers of the Civil War that has torn his country apart. Unfortunately, Agu's innocence cannot be preserved forever. In a series of events, the Civil War hits closer to home. His mother escapes on a caravan of over-crowded cars and buses. His father receives a bullet to the head. His older brother is shot trying to escape from the soldiers that have marched in. Agu runs off into the wilderness, crying the whole way. Shortly after, he is discovered by an army, led by Commandant (Idris Elba), a powerful speaker who will strike fear into the hearts of anybody around him. Agu is immediately thrust into a position of leadership as a child soldier in Commandant's army. The horrific results will haunt you to your core.

Beasts of No Nation is one of those films that nobody wants to see, but is so good that it simply cannot be ignored. Its brutal, stark and unforgiving portrayal of African child soldiers is raw and terrifying, and when contrasted with the sharp beauty of Fukunaga's direction and cinematography, makes for a thoroughly bizarre and grim experience that is unshakable. Elba is the human embodiment of power, fear and sexual terror, leading an army of impressionable young men with hypnotic charm and devilish anger. His performance is completely Oscar-worthy, but in an amazing turn of events, it's his younger co-star that outshines him. Abraham Attah's screen debut is a performance of maturity and poise beyond his years, and most likely the most impressive showcase by a young actor ever. Attah, along with his other young co-star Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, carry this film and deliver two phenomenal performances that will be talked about for a very long time.

But make no mistake- Beasts of No Nation is not a leisurely stroll in the park. This movie is almost impossible to watch. The one advantage of a Netflix release is that it allows the audience members to pause, take a breather and digest the sheer horrors that they've just witnessed. I watched the film in solid 30-45 minute chunks over the course of two days, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I feel like it's a testament to Fukunaga's filmmaking power that he made a film that feels so real and so visceral that it's almost unbearably intense.

Beasts of No Nation is also a film of profound sadness. Fukunaga certainly highlights the horror, the despair and the dread of being a child soldier torn by civil war, but I think that his finest hour comes in the final stages of the film (mild spoilers ahead). In the film's conclusion, Agu must re-accustom himself to a society away from the life he lived under Commandant, and it's as hard and as painful to watch as some of the film's most violent moments.

This stretch of the film is where Fukunaga turns Beasts from a very good film into a great one, possibly one for the ages. For 90% of its runtime, Beasts of No Nation is a gut punch. You see children put into horrible situations. Shooting people in the head at point blank range. Hacking away at an innocent man's skull with a machete. Implied sexual assault at the hands of a role model. Agu watches all of his friends die around him. It's horrific and as intensely graphic as you'll see in an American film this year. But for the conclusion, Fukunaga turns the camera to Agu's world and evaluates the true damage that this has done to his mind and to his soul. He can't ever be a kid again. Once you've taken a man's life, it's not exactly an easy road back. And that's the true sadness of Beasts of No Nation. Thankfully, despite all of the doom and gloom, there is a tinge of optimism at the end of the film that makes for a perfect ending. But still, don't expect anything easy.

Oddly enough, the film goes down a little bit easier simply because of how well made and splendidly shot it is. Fukunaga, who last created the critically acclaimed first season of HBO's Matthew McConaughey/Woody Harrelson noir thriller True Detective, serves as director and cinematographer here. And I have to say, Beasts of No Nation has the most stunning, the most beautiful and the most captivating cinematography I've ever seen in an indie film. Vibrant, unique and awesome, the colors pop off the screen similar to how they do in Apocalypse Now and more recently, Mad Max: Fury Road (different films, but the color palettes are nearly identical). The greens are lush, the reds bleed off the screen and the intense muddiness of the browns is stunning. If Fukunaga doesn't get some cinematography attention at the Oscars, I'll be stunned. 

Fukunaga's brilliance extends to the director's chair as well, where he alternates between multiple styles with grace and ease. The mix of handheld shaky cam and steady, sustained shots creates the atmosphere of the film and works perfectly. There is a terrifying and wonderful tracking shot towards the end that I think will go down as one of the best sustained shots of the year. Agu stands near a machine gun before an another man tells him to go off and get more bullets. The camera pans around and follows Agu as he dives into the muddy water of the trenches. It follows him as he wades through a sea of disease, sick men and bright red mud, all as the bullets and artillery shells reverberate around him. Simply masterful.

You have to know what you're getting into with Beasts of No Nation, but if you can stomach the horrors put on screen by Fukunaga and company, you'll be rewarded with what is, hands down, one of the best films of the year. Despite his youth, Attah deserves Oscar attention and Elba will undoubtedly be in the conversation for months. And even if Fukunaga and the actors end up getting snubbed, I have no doubt that this film will stand the test of time. It's an incredible film, a profound one and it's an important one.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.2/10)

Image Credits: Slash Film, Flickering Myth, Hollywood Reporter, EW, Screen Rant

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