The excellent Beasts of No Nation grants Netflix’s wish to become a real boy
Netflix has changed their business model with a dictatorial spirit of aggressive expansion in the past half-decade. Their broad-strokes business plan was ingenious in its simplicity: become the best at something nobody’s doing, then once that’s all shored up, become the best at the thing everyone’s trying to do. Netflix pretty much singlehandedly turned online video streaming into a thriving and highly competitive industry, over which they still reign supreme, and then turned their sights on plans to debut original programming and change the entertainment business as we know it.#
However, Netflix hasn’t truly gotten its foot in the movie-exhibition door until now. While they have released loads of documentaries, many of which have been prohibitively inessential#, Cary Fukunaga’s newest effort, the harrowing war picture Beasts of No Nation, marks a huge leap forward for Netflix as a giant of the entertainment industry.
With this film, Netflix proves that they’re more than capable of running with the big dogs, of acquiring and releasing challenging and high-quality cinema from name-brand talent (with, all other things considered, serious awards potential). They’re doing the thing everyone’s trying to do now; Cary Fukunaga’s the Blue Fairy that has finally granted Netflix’s wish to become a real boy. They did it. They released a real live good movie.
Netflix has not heretofore released anything that even comes close to rivaling the stylistic and narrative audacity of Beasts of No Nation, asserting the online streaming giant’s official arrival beyond further debate.
Acquiring this film in particular can’t help but feel like a strategic move, too. Netflix ponied up a considerable check to the tune of $12 million to wrangle the distribution rights for Beasts, a princely sum that could’ve easily won them the rights to an array of other pictures. But Cary Fukunaga’s peculiar positioning in the pop-cultural landscape uniquely suits him for introducing Netflix’s film presence to the world. He narrowly splits the difference between a fanboy populist favorite as the helmer of True Detective’s first season# and the camera behind such recent arthouse gems as Sin Nombre and the Mia Wasikowska-led Jane Eyre. He can win the critical respect that Netflix needs to solidify their legitimacy as a new studio, while at the same time appealing to a wider swath of the viewing public who may even have a pre-established familiarity with his name.
And if not Fukunaga’s name, audiences would have an even higher likelihood of being drawn in by the promise of a rightfully buzzy performance from people’s champion Idris Elba (the face behind the fully canonized The Wire as well as the nerd-market-beloved Pacific Rim).
What’s more, Beasts of No Nation speaks to themes and generic traditions with broad crossover appeal between high-minded cinephiles as well as casual viewers. Nobody will ever love war films as much as white dads, but the genre still manages to resonate with viewers across the board through its mature themes that transcend the specifics of conflict. The film never explicitly names the war-ravaged West African country in which its terrible crimes take place, because the film wasn’t conceived as a political document.# Fukunaga has no interest in lamenting the destabilized political climate of this nation or that; he’d much rather tell a more widely accessible story about the way groups swallow wayward individuals and reform them in a new image.
And while the big name attached to the film may be Elba’s, the true star here is newcomer Abraham Attah as Agu, a young and free-spirited village boy who’s jumped into a roving gang of child soldiers led by Idris Elba’s warlord, referred to only as Commandant.
As Agu’s seduced by the power of violence as well as the charismatic Commandant’s promises of support, reward, and community, he undergoes his own dark coming-of-age. Fukunaga depicts the totality with which a cult takes over the waking thoughts of its members, breaking them down completely so that they can be filled with ideologies instead of thoughts. Fukunaga also makes time (there’s no shortage of that in the film’s two-hour-twenty-minute run time) for a fully-formed study of Elba’s character, a leader smart enough not to believe the things he tells his followers.
As a work of film art, Beasts also exudes enough self-evident intensity to render its merits apparent to viewers looking for a visceral rather than cerebral experience. In layman’s terms, this film is a goddamn doozy.
The scenes of armed conflict mesmerize and repulse the audience in equal measure, showing the allure that all this power must hold for those who wield it while also amply illustrating the terror it can wreak. The unspeakable violence powers some of the film’s standout sequences, such as the highlight in which Agu and his fellow soldiers, their senses warped by a dirty substitute for cocaine manufactured using gunpowder and pressed directly into open flesh wounds, descend on an unprepared village. In a series of unyielding tracking shots, Fukunaga follows Agu and his squadron as they loose indiscriminate death on the shantytown’s defenseless inhabitants. With a swirling, hallucinatory verve earning comparisons to Apocalypse Now, Fukunaga digitally alters the color of the world around Agu, conveying how deep he’s fallen into the insanity of war.
Of course, one success is by no means a trend. To fully prove itself as a worthy contender in the no-holds-barred melee of Hollywood, Netflix will have to string together a few more respectable releases such as this.# But for the moment, Netflix can enjoy its day in the oppressive African sun. Along with Cary Fukunaga, they journeyed into the darkest depths of man’s inhumanity to man.
Fukunaga emerged with his finest work to date, an achievement of affecting brutality and moral sacrifice. But Netflix might have walked away with the better end of the deal: they got a second life.
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