Netflix’s first original feature film, Beasts of No Nation, is a visually powerful and outstandingly well-acted portrayal of human conflict
In 2013, Netflix released their first original TV series—House of Cards. This move was an instant game changer. Instead of waiting for weekly instalments on the telly, we were able to get an entire season ready to view at the click of a button. Since then, Netflix has had a strong run of original TV content. But now, Netflix are attempting to change the game once again with Beasts of No Nation, their first feature length movie.
Written, directed and shot by Cary Fukunaga (first season of True Detective), Beasts of No Nation throws us into a bloody civil war in an unspecified country somewhere in Africa. Our protagonist is Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah), who is forced on the run after his family is brutally murdered by government forces. After happening upon the rebel army, he is recruited as a child soldier by their Commandant (played with ruthless charisma by Idris Elba). What follows, is a violent and harrowing portrayal of conflict and betrayal that manages to be both horrifying and beautiful in equal measure.
On a visual level, Beasts on No Nation is incredible. The gorgeous African scenery is truly something to behold—when contrasted with the characters’ appalling acts of violence, it makes what could have been another basic entry into the ‘war is hell’ genre, into so much more—a powerful portrait of the corruption of beauty. We already knew from True Detective that Fukunaga is a talented visual artist, and Beasts of No Nation serves as a further reminder that he is one of the most promising visionaries in modern cinema.
Casting a first time child actor for the film’s lead role was a risky move on the part of Mr Fukunaga, but Abraham Attah proves to be an astonishing young talent. He is absolutely convincing as a child who has lost it all and wants revenge for the death of his family. Idris Elba also delivers a brilliant performance as the Commandant—in fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of his best roles to date. He plays a fierce soldier and commander whose moments of aggression and brutality make for some of the film’s most memorable scenes. Elba will likely (and certainly should) be in Oscar contention for his role.
The film’s writing, however, does represent a slight letdown. When so much effort is put into the visual storytelling in this film, its seems slightly bizarre that Fukunaga had chosen to include an utterly pointless voiceover narration from Agu in some parts of the film. When employed well, voiceover narrations can enrich a film, but here it just feels superfluous. Aside from this, the film’s dialogue is decently written, but it is not nearly as memorable as the visuals—there will be no quotes from this film that will stick in your head.
All in all, Beasts of No Nation is an exceptional, but not an outstanding picture that represents a promising start for Netflix as a producer of original movies. But will the streaming platform come to replace the silver screen itself? I’m sceptical. It’s certainly not impossible that we will all be watching movies on our computers in the future, but I’m not inclined to believe that people will stop craving the experience of movies on the big screen. For now, I see online movies as an alternative to cinema rather than a replacement.
But however the future of movies will be affected by the release of Beasts of No Nation, the film itself is not to be missed. It’s a haunting and unique portrayal of the horrors of war that cements Cary Fukunaga’s position as one of the most important directors working today.