After the groundbreaking success of shows like “Orange Is The New Black” and “House of Cards,” it was only a matter of time before Netflix started cranking out original feature films. And judging from its genre expanding content, it’s no surprise to see they went straight for the gut with the distressing war drama “Beasts of No Nation,” now out via Netflix and limited theatrical release. Adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel, the story sets it focus on the struggle of child soldiers without batting an eye. Be warned: this is a film intended for the strong of soul, not the weak of heart.
Abu (Abraham Attah) is a young boy living in a West African village with his family. Tragedy soon comes at the hands of African paramilitaries, who execute Abu’s father, brother and grandfather before his very eyes. Stranded and alone before the enveloping jungle, he is recruited by Commandante (Idris Elba) as a child soldier with the promise of avenging his fallen family. Of course, that promise comes at the expense of all that is morally right in Abu’s preadolescent world. Or anyone else’s, for that matter.
The plot isn’t anything particularly groundbreaking by 2015 standards, and its tendency to slip into predictable areas ends up being a notable handicap. But whatever is forsaken on the content side is compensated by the picture’s bravura acting and impassioned direction. Attah, all of 15 years old, is heartbreakingly perfect for the role of Abu. Dishing out one soul-wrenching emotion after another for the duration of the film’s 137 minutes, his transformation from being “a good boy from a good family” to a machete wielding death machine is impossible to overpraise. The scene where Abu is forced to kill someone for the first time is startling; both in its brutality and in Attah’s morally torn apart eyes.
This violence is something that’s to be expected in large quantities throughout “Nation.” Director Cary Joji Fukunaga, working from his self-adapted screenplay, refuses to shy away from this violent truth while simultaneously downplaying its glorification. Abu’s murders are sloppy and ugly to watch, be it by hand or the automatic weapon that’s twice his size. Fukunaga, fresh off of an Emmy for directing HBO’s “True Detective,” continues to excel at creating distinct set pieces; particularly in the purple treed psychedelica of the village raid sequence.
Outside of these brutal spats, the director flashes a talent for emphasizing human interactions over hollow emotions. Early scenes between Abu and his family, or later exchanges with surrogate father Commandante are knee deep in a drama that’s fresh, sincere and cinematically satisfying. The latter moments in particular benefit from the presence of Idris Elba, a guy who’s been giving great performances for years. As the charmingly sadistic leader of the militia, his weathered acting definitely deserves some red carpet talk for Best Supporting Actor.
Unfortunately, as “Beasts of No Nation” winds to a subtle close, its purpose remains unclear. It’s exceptionally crafted and acted to professional perfection, yet it manages to say nothing truly unique about its child soldier experience. Fukunaga and Netflix are clearly in step when it comes to artistically potent storytelling — here’s hoping they pursue a more distinct perspective next time out.
Danilo Castro is a resident of Oro Valley and writer for the Film Noir Archive blog at www.filmnoirarchive.com