Like every law student, I’m extremely grateful for Netflix. In this case, not only for its heavy volume of binge-worthy television shows to help me waste time as the gloom and doom of semester finals near, but also because, without the streaming service, a movie like Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation (streaming now to Netflix, the first major film distributed solely in this manner) would have never seen the light of day.
This is not a movie that gets made by a major studio in today’s Hollywood, where, save for a few exceptions, there is a laser-like focus on big, loud, tentpole films that are marketed towards a specific audience — often teenage boys — and that can contribute to a franchise’s epic “world-building.”
Beasts had long been a passion project for Fukunaga (previously best known for directing every episode of the first season of HBO’s True Detective), yet he couldn’t get the film greenlit when he pitched it to major studios, which is when Netflix stepped in and picked up the script.
Beasts is indeed big in running time (137 minutes), but, unlike most major studio action films, it is both modestly-scaled and paced. Its depiction of violence is extremely brutal and unrelenting, and it avoids the heavy-handed sanctimony that often comes with studio releases dealing with this heavy type of subject matter.
Using a cast largely of young children and untrained actors, Beasts’ lead is Abraham Attah, who plays Agu, the youngest member of a family living in a village in an unnamed war-torn African country. In the film’s first twenty minutes, his entire family is brutally executed by government authorities after they are mistaken for spies. Agu barely escapes, running away before he is captured by a rebel commandant who leads a crew of child soldiers.
Idris Elba (The Wire) plays the unnamed commandant of the crew. He takes Agu under his wing (“I am your future,” he tells him and the other child soldiers), and is soon instructing him to kill. Almost instantly, Agu is caught in the vortex of civil bloodshed that killed his entire family and now threatens to define his future.
Fukunaga’s directing craft is on full display: the violent scenes (there are many) are taut and shocking, and there are several shots that capture both the harrowing brutality of Agu’s situation with beautiful shots of the natural landscape of the film’s unnamed setting.
Attah is mesmerizing in his first role. Agu’s eyes show his terror and confusion, yet the forces of evil are too powerful and dangerous for him to openly display weakness. The main force of evil here is Elba. His masterful, charismatic, and altogether terrifying performance as the commandant should earn him an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category. In order to qualify for Academy Award consideration, the movie – despite being instantly available on Netflix – had a short-lived theatrical release in 31 theaters in New York and Los Angeles, where it made just a paltry $87,000 at the box office. Netflix did recently say, however, that within the first several weeks that it was available to stream, more than three million people had watched it.
The movie is not without its flaws. It’s about 20 minutes too long and some secondary characters who we are introduced to are not given an adequate backstory. But this is still a welcome addition to the Netflix library. If Netflix represents the future of both original feature film making and distribution, this will certainly boost their credibility in both respects. They’ve made a courageous first step with Beasts of No Nation.