While building his reputation as a modern master and innovator, Cary Fukunaga has been a intriguing filmmaking presence by consistently surprising us in his choice in material. Debuting with the immigrant drama Sin Nombre, he followed that up with a literary adaptation of Jane Eyre that went beyond our expectations and conventions of contemporary costume drama. Not to be pinned down by genre alone, he shook the way we watch serialized television with HBO’s celebrated first season of True Detective. Fukunaga keeps changing his own game with wildly different material, but also working across different formats.
Now, he brings not only another in a line of stories unique to his filmography, but he’s again working in a unique presentation format: the theatrical/Netflix hybrid brutal African war tome and Beasts of No Nation.
Beasts, from the novel by Uzodinma Iweala, centers on an unnamed African country and an unnamed war between the government and opposing rebels. The anonymity speaks volumes to the insidiousness of the creation of children into killing machines: this isn’t about political specifics we can negotiate in and out of, but confronting a prevalent world sin from which we’re all to quick to hide our eyes.
We begin with Agu (a revelatory Abraham Attah), a typical boy for any part of the world, passing time goofing off with friends and being teased by his older brother. This is no cinematic man-child, for his awareness of the world is truthful to any preadolescent. We crane our necks to hear radio transmissions and details of conversations that Agu gives any notice to, even after he is ingrained in the war. Ultimately, it’s his ununiqueness that makes Agu’s journey into the heart of darkness all the more devastating because he is merely one of the faceless thousands that have been consumed by endless wars.
Agu survives the uprising that consumes and divides his family only to land in the hands of the rebel NRF, led by the also nameless Commandant. Played with precise rage and fury, Idris Elba’s Commandant is Agu’s savior and destructor, so passionate to rouse his loyal subjects even as he rejects their desire to please him. The complicated relationship between the gratitude for “saving” Agu and systematically destroying him is plain on the painfully expressive Attah’s face. His final moments of reflection on the acts he was coerced into is devastating, with the kind of acting intelligence and honesty we take for granted from trained pros but never expect from non-actors like the young Attah.
Elba also shoulders much of the film’s heavy lifting. Not painted as an outright uncomplicated monster, Elba’s Commandant is full of his own driving disappointments and desires beyond the battlefield. He is unconflicted with the evil he commits and forces upon the children he manipulates but exhibits genuine concern and care for them, a rare performance of grand ferocity and complex subtlety. It’s the kind of work that an actor’s career is remembered by; think of this as Idris Elba’s Hannibal Lecter.
The film does fall victim to the expected genre tropes and sags a little due to our anticipation of the beats to come, but where Fukunaga succeeds is with creating an immersive experience, the one trademark of his divergent filmography. We’re plunged into Agu’s moral hell, a fully realized world where demons are heroes and inalienable wrongs will keep you safe. Color and sound clash together as Agu’s mind rushes toward implosion, the environment is at once majestic and sinister. The world of the film isn’t just the landscape of the jungle, but Agu’s ever-conflicting state of mind. While the material would lead one to believe that the film is an oppressively violent unrelentingly detailed, it is more concerned with the soul and feeling than it is with the gruesome.
Initially intended as a strictly theatrical experience, Beasts is now also available to 65 million viewers globally through Netflix. It’s easy to imagine that kind of reach being hard to resist for Fukunaga, especially considering the subject matter we have socially dismissed. However, it’s evident that if you’re able to experience Beasts in the cinema, it is a must. Netflix is playing with their model here, clearly with awards intentions being the catalyst, but this perhaps is a film best left with the biggest canvas being the most available. Not to be naive about the financial prospects and audience desire of such tough material, but the theatrical experience is going to bring a deeper connection to the experience. See it in a theatre if you can!