Sunday, October 18, 2015

Review: Beasts of No Nation

Image courtesy of Netflix.
Based on the brief but intense and disturbing novel by Uzodinma Iweala, Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Beasts of No Nation" is a powerful war drama that often dares you to keep your eyes on the screen, its horrors are so unnerving.

Set in an unnamed African country on the brink of war, "Beasts" starts off as a family story in which Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah) and his family enjoy a happy life in a relatively comfortable home in their small village. His father is a teacher and his older brother attempts to perfect his dance moves in order to score with the young village women. War has broken out in their country, but it seems far away.

But then one day, soldiers arrive and Agu's mother and baby sibling are forced to flee to the capital, while Agu, his brother, father and incapacitated grandfather stay behind. Shortly thereafter, Agu is the only living member of his family left in his hometown and he flees into the woods, where he stumbles upon a group of rebels led by the ferocious father figure known as The Commandant (Idris Elba in top form).

With an army of mostly teenagers and pre-teens, The Commandant leads his troops into a heart of darkness that gives "Beasts" a slight "Apocalypse Now" vibe, the exception being that, in this case, Kurtz is leading the mission rather than being its destination.

Agu and his fellow new recruits undergo training on how to kill. During one particularly harrowing scene, he and other newcomers must run through a maze of rebels, who strike them with sticks. Agu notices one of the new soldiers failing to make it through the maze and getting his throat cut as a result.

It's difficult to pin down the film's most unsettling sequence, whether it's the one in which Agu is forced by The Commandant to take his first life, in this case an engineer whom Agu is ordered to strike in the head with a machete, or a later scene during which the rebels raid a house, kill a woman inside and stomp her child to death.

Fukunaga is no stranger to deeply unsettling material. His 2009 film "Sin Nombre" was an extremely violent story about Mexican gangs, while his amazing work on season one of "True Detective" proved he can be a master of the macabre. "Beasts of No Nation" takes it to a whole other level. It's a powerful film in which it's difficult to root for any of its characters, but even more difficult not to root for their survival. Francois Truffaut once famously said that "there's no such thing as an anti-war film." Had he seen this one, he might rethink that statement.

This weekend, I've seen two of the best child performances of recent years - Jacob Tremblay's work in "Room" and Attah's portrayal of the child soldier in "Beasts." I was amazed by the range of emotions and understanding of character these two very young actors showed. And I've been a fan of Elba since his iconic portrayal of Stringer Bell on "The Wire" and here he again shows how his supporting work can elevate whatever show or film of which he is a part. He's hypnotizing and horrifying as The Commandant, a figure with virtually no redeeming qualities, but whom Elba manages to humanize rather than turn into a cartoonish monster.

"Beasts" is the first film to be produced and released by Netflix, which already provides stellar shows, such as "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black," which is acclaimed and unseen by me. This picture and those shows should be an indication that the DVD service's executives have an eye for great material.

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