|Left to right: Abraham Attah and Idris Elba|
Over the course of the past few months, Netflix has gotten a lot of attention for a potentially groundbreaking strategy. Along with their growing quality content, they were going to take on The Academy Awards for a Best Picture nomination with director Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation. While it wouldn't be the first direct-to-Netflix movie in the company's history, it was the first to gain buzz, unanimously positive reviews, and riveting talent in newcomer Abraham Attah as a child thrown into becoming a soldier of war. With intense trailers and enough hype to drive you crazy, the film has arrived. It's as intense and dour as you'd expect a film about child soldiers to be. It's just not as interesting as you'd actually hoped.
The film starts off on shaky ground with protagonist Agu (Attah) giving us voice-over exposition about his humble town. We're introduced to this world through a hollowed-out TV, creating a clever motif on how audiences around the world see African tragedies. It's rich with purpose and is immediately followed up with an exhaustive amount of exposition that gives us a strong idea of Agu's humble abode. We're nervous as we're thrown into the chaos of being overthrown by violent rebels. The focus on dodging bullets is enough to create an emotional depth for the scene. Thankfully, Fukunaga is a director who makes it look beautiful and horrific simultaneously.
This mostly works because Agu was a sympathetic child character. By the time he comes under the command of the ruthless Commandant (Idris Elba), he loses his identity entirely. There's a scene that appeared in the trailers in which Agu's "loss of innocence" happened. He must contemplate beheading a stranger as he's being yelled at. The sound fades out and there's a certain morality in his eyes. It's a moment that's supposed to be intense. It works for the most part, but it's also indicative of what this film wants to be for the remaining time. It wants to make you feel that dread over and over and over until the horrors of war aren't just implied, they're thrust into your lap and you're screaming.
The issue is that at some point within this, Agu has evolved from a complicated, sympathetic character to a cliche, disaffected child soldier. His motives are no longer even given and the complexity of his character tapers off. Beyond the first hour, very little of value happens that cannot be summarized as Commandant leading juvenile psychopaths in redundant chants as they kill people. There's no bigger plot. There's no grander catharsis. It's simply a film that exploits violence, expecting the audience to feel the horrors as being miserable and unpleasant. Considering that the war film has been around for over a century, this concept is old news and Fukunaga doesn't do anything new with it. He cannot even justify why there needed to be a Beasts of No Nation in this world.
For what it's worth, Attah is an interesting actor for how raw and unformed his reactions are. Despite the story throwing him often into the background, he does have those moments where we sense his dread. They're just not as present as the film's lack of subtle commentary. For all of Fukunaga's beautiful cinematography, this is a film rooted in a model that is like a subpar Platoon. It just lacks the empathy to make it work. There's not enough character moments to relinquish Agu as nothing more than a tragic figure that was once interesting. By the end, there's not a concern on if he'll ever get better, but why the movie needed to hammer home the themes for at least 40 minutes too many. There's a good film in here, but Fukunaga feels like too much of a sadist to realize that.
Most of all, it's just boring. Without an empathetic protagonist, there's not much to really cling onto in this film. While the violence has a certain poetry to its look, the novelty fades the further along that things go. By the hour mark, it's frustrating to know that it's not even half over and will not present much new in that remaining time. Maybe it's beneficial to the cliche "war is hell" theme, but is it? These characters were miserable before and are more miserable now. Nothing's changed. Did we really need an obvious story of how Agu was forced to undergo such torture without having any emotionally cathartic moment for long stretches of time? Agu becomes too impersonal to his own story, and that's a real shame.
It's likely that Beasts of No Nation will be praised for its intensity, with many giving it the caveat that it's "Hard to watch." I agree with the latter statement, though largely because none of the characters are interesting. There's very little compelling or interesting about the plot on a deeper and more rich subtext. It's film that feels like it wants to be taken seriously, but makes me question the director's intentions more. It's violence for violence's sake. It doesn't give us a deeper understanding about an interesting topic of child soldiers. It just tells us that things suck and expects us to go with it. That, in essence, explains the absence of emotion.