Idris Elba commands Netflix's downbeat 'Beasts of No Nation'

True Detective' director helms grave account of African child soldiers

Friday October 16, 2015 04:00 am EDT

The war drama Beasts of No Nation seems destined to get more attention for its atypical release scheme than the gravity of its content. Netflix's first feature film production, Beasts of No Nation opened in theaters Oct. 16, the same day it became available on the streaming media service. The decision provoked four major U.S. theater chains to boycott the film, which plays at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta.

But Beasts of No Nation was never likely to get much play at the box office alongside the likes of Hotel Transylvania 2. Helmed, written, and shot by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed the acclaimed first season of "True Detective," Beasts of No Nation is an almost brutally uncompromising and downbeat account of child soldiers in an African civil war, the kind of film that's easy to admire and difficult to love. It serves as a mission statement that, as a potential film producer, Netflix is serious about being serious.

Based on a novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation unfolds from the point of view of Agu (Abraham Attah), who lives in an unnamed African country. Early scenes find Agu and his friends creating diversions like "Imagination TV," acting out shows behind a television with no screen (possibly Fukunaga's nod to his Western audience).

When the war approaches, Agu's mother flees with his young siblings, and then his male relatives get captured and summarily executed by the national forces, who don't discriminate between insurrectionists and civilians. The boy flees to the jungle, where he's eventually found by a band of rebels, led by an alpha male known as "the Commandant" (Idris Elba). Like a combination of guerilla fighter, cult leader, and open-hearted camp director, the Commandant sees the potential in boys like Agu and wants to bring out their best — which means turning them into indiscriminate killing machines.

Elba's calm, confident magnetism goes a long way to hold Beasts of No Nation together. When he motivates his troops to attack a bridge, they trot down a street while singing an African song, as if he's brought out their camaraderie more than their blood lust. The plot takes its most intriguing turn when the troops visit the rebel's supreme commander, who's changing strategies to curry the favor of world opinion, putting the Commandant on the margins. Elba's performance brings an uncomfortably human element to a man who'd be a monster by most definitions.

Even when drugs and sexual abuse become part of story, we can see how Agu, in his traumas, would stay loyal to the Commandant. The film sets a somber, almost flat tone that matches Agu's benumbed psyche. Attah of Ghana had never acted before being cast in Beasts, and while he has a vulnerable presence on screen, his authenticity comes at a price, as he's an emotionally narrow performer with a dense English accent.

Fukunaga brings a similar vision to Africa that he brought to the Mississippi Delta in "True Detective." When the camera scans war-ravaged streets or rural rebel encampments or we see the soldiers half-dressed in rags and leaves, we feel like we're taking a tour in one of the world's most hellish corners.

Netflix is clearly positioning Beasts of No Nation as an Oscar contender, and Elba certainly gives an award-worthy supporting performance. But the film leaves viewers feeling more crushed than uplifted, and the Academy tends to favor films that leaven bleakness with hope. There's a saying that the kind of film Hollywood wants to make are tragedies — with happy endings. Beasts of No Nation leaves some room for hope, but takes a long, hard march to get there. (3 out of 5 stars)

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