Toronto 2015 Review: BEASTS OF NO NATION Spills Blood On A Large Canvas
A big screen movie made by streaming media behemoth Netflix, for click and view streaming, Cary Fukunaga's beautifully brutal war story, Beasts of No Nation feels too large and too difficult a watch to warrant a casual click on a stay-at-home Friday night. But this is where we are in terms of moviegoing in 2015, and forgive me if this seems a vulgar comparison, not unlike the political landscape in the anonymous African country where, "nothing is ever for sure, and everything is always changing."
Beasts of No Nation is a grand experience on a heartbreaking subject matter, told at a pace that easily turns from relentless tension to quiet introspection, featuring child soldiers and rebel militias that are indistinguishable from the corrupt government. If I heard right, Nigeria is mentioned once, presumably because that is where the author of the novel on which the story is based, Uzodinma Iweala, hails from. The movie is never clear on this, but clearly wants to be a universal story about the misery of endless, senseless (and probably petty) warfare on the Dark Continent - particularly from the point of view of a child.
As evidenced in the many establishing shots in the first season of True Detective, Fukunaga has an eye for long-shot tableaux, and here the green jungle stands out against the rusty soil peppered with children carrying sporting camouflage and Kalashnikovs. Presumably the land's vermillion hue is due to all the blood spilt in conflict without end. The film has no problem erupting the red stuff, mostly by the hands of these children; the most harrowing are two children taking a machete to the skull of a panicked civil engineer, his hands in the air of surrender. There is blood on the camera in this scene, literally.
That it was not always so, however, is the greatest trick pulled on the audience. The first twenty minutes of Beasts of No Nation are set in a poor but bustling town on the edge of the war. Children have the frame of a television set that they are carrying around, trying to sell as an 'imagination TV' where, once they set it down on a table, they proceed to rapid fire act out various 'channels' for the onlookers: dance programs, kung-fu movies, and so forth. There is no school (it burned down) and lots of idle hands, but the feeling is of freedom rather than poverty. The tone is all singing and dancing and innocent joy. We meet Agu and his family. Agu's mother chides their behaviour, "if you do not know what to do, ask God for the answer."
This, right before she is put on a crowded and expensive vehicle (conflict-surge pricing of which Uber has got nothing on) to get out of the area before things get bad. God is not listening. She will not be seen again as the war descends on the town in the form of armoured gun trucks and death squads. In the chaos, it is not entirely clear if anyone survives beyond Agu. He witnesses the brutal murder of his entire family circle before fleeing into the jungle alone. It is here that he is quickly swallowed up by what will be his next family unit.
At this point in his career, it is not like British actor Idris Elba needs a coming out party. This, more or less, happened a decade ago, playing an educated Baltimore drug pusher in HBO's The Wire. And despite having a couple of Ridley Scott movies under his belt, several jaunts through the Marvel Comic Universe, four seasons with his own UK TV show Luther, a Nelson Mandela biopic, a Guillermo del Toro Kaiju flick, and has been the subject of an on again off again campaign to make him the next James Bond, Beasts of No Nation still feels like we are just getting to see what kind of star-making performances the man is capable of.
Here Elba plays Commandant, a charismatic soldier fighting for a rebel splinter group that consists almost entirely of children. He is their leader, their hero, their father, and keeper of indoctrination rituals and secret orders. They look up to and follow him without question, and for a time, so do we. However, the more we see of his methods and actions, the less we think of him.
It is a complex performance, rendered as equal measure icon, virile monster, and petulant dictator. Buyer beware, at one point, he not so subtly forces Agu to orally provide 'release' for him. This is shortly after praising the young boy's leadership qualities after a battle. In another incident, where we finally meet his superior, flush with fresh orders and assignments, Commandant is tiny, petulant and insubordinate. Through all of these shades, you cannot stop watching the man whose performance transcends performance.
Amazingly, young actor Abraham Attah, who has the viewpoint of the entire film, holds his own against Elba's monster performance. He has to go from carefree child to hardbitten soldier to world-weary philosopher over the span of 120 minutes and is never once lacking; quite the contrary, in fact. As Commandant begins to descend into a Colonel Kurtz kind of headspace, the film takes on a weird, beautiful, neutral-zone quality. Beasts of No Nation feels like someone mashed City of God with The Thin Red Line, and a touch of apocalyptic Brando. The minuscule nod to Truffaut's The 400 Blows at the end is more to get you out of the cinema without succumbing to total paralysis of the grim suffering essayed at the hands of a director (and crew) in full control of his craft.
I know it will be convenient to watch this when it pops up on Netflix on October 16th, but seriously folks, this kind of large canvas, heavy-duty, visual storytelling belongs on a big screen with an audience ready to shoulder the images. It is worth the cost of a month's worth of streaming, even if it is 'free' on the internet for subscribers. The fury and the anger would simply be too contained on your living room computer screen.