Back in the late 2000’s, Netflix was known as the place that would send movies through and let you return them whenever you wanted. Less than 10 years later, that same DVD rental delivery service transitioned into the #1 streaming service and is responsible for some most groundbreaking television in recent years (Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Daredevil, Narcos).
Now, Netflix has its eyes set on the big screen. The first feature film is Beast of No Nation, a story about child soldiers in Africa. Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective Season 1), Beast’s heartbreaking story is told through the eyes of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy living with his family in an unnamed West African country.
Agu is just like any normal boy his age – he plays with his friends, enjoys his family and is trying to figure out the world around him. When a civil war reaches his village, Agu’s mother and baby sister are sent away and he’s forced to stay behind with his brother and father to protect their property. When the village is overrun by the government, Agu’s father and brother are killed, leaving him to survive on his own. Wandering through the jungle, he meets a group of mercenaries lead by a ruthless leader known as Commandant (Idris Elba). Agu’s only chance to survive is to become a soldier. He’s told by Commandant he will be trained to fight and get revenge on the people who killed his family.
The longer Agu stays with the mercenaries, the more his behavior starts to change. He transforms from a child playing “imaginary TV” with his friends, to using “brown”, and shooting people in cold blood. The only thing keeping Agu level headed is a fellow young soldier he befriends named Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye).
Agu’s constant gprayers and narration throughout are as introspective as they are sad. They’re also a reminder Agu’s not just a child, but a child trapped in a nightmare he won’t wake from.
It’s hard to tell Abraham Attah was a street vendor in Ghana before he took the role as Agu. He delivers one of the year’s best performances in a year that’s packed with good performances. It’s not only Attah’s ability to show raw emotion, but the non verbal cues he gives during Agu’s grim journey. He effortlessly captures the full emotional experience of a child who, as a means to survive, has to be stripped of their innocence, piece by piece.
Beast presents a different role for Idris Elba. The always loveable Elba trades in his clean cut GQ persona for a bushy hair, untrimmed beard, cargo shorts and boots covered in read dirty. Commandant is a complicated character and Elba captures every inch of it. Much of who Commandant is/or isn’t is never spoken or revealed. What is clear is, much like Agu and the other mercenaries, Commandant is just another soldier taking orders. They’re all soldiers in a war that has no end in sight. Elba delivers as only he can in the film’s final act when he meets with The Supreme Commander and later when he’s confronted by his soldiers.
Best of No Nation is not for the faint-of-heart. It’s gritty, raw and an emotionally charged drama that challenges what we know about child soldiers and the worlds they come from. It touches on taboo subjects and doesn’t shy away from the brutalities of war. It’s also impossible not to get choked up at least 2 or 3 times.
Fukunaga brings along some of the same magic that made True Detective so much fun to watch. Fukunaga’s great tracking shots are starting to become his signatures. One of the best shots follows Agu through the trenches while showing you the conditions they’re living under.
For a film released by Netflix, Beast has a box office feel to it. It’s well produced, well acted and well directed. If Netflix can keep putting out high quality films, they may have change the landscape of film the way they have with television. Beast may not be a big box office earner, due to the simultaneous Netflix release, but it will definitely be the topic of conversation during award season.