REVIEW: Beasts of No Nation

23 10 2015

Beasts of No NationAlmost as if anticipating that the majority of people who saw his film would be through Netflix, Cary Joji Fukunaga opens “Beasts of No Nation” with a shot of some young African boys playing soccer literally through the outer shell of a television set.  The film was shot with the likely intention of a sizable theatrical release, so I made the decision to pay more than a monthly Netflix subscription fee to see it screened in this way.

As with the majority of critics who saw it projected (most at one of the three fall festivals at which it played in September 2015), I was wowed by the stunning visuals as well as the immersive aural experience.  I simply cannot imagine this work packing the same punch when the vast foliage of a jungle is reduced to mere pixels even with good bandwidth, nor do I think the layers of complex sound would even be discernible by fraying earbuds.  But, hey, tons more people could see it?!

Though as I sat there, particularly in the film’s more conventional third act, I wondered how many times I might have paused the movie or looked down at my cell phone if watching “Beasts of No Nation” at home. Fukunaga does not shy away from the horrors of civil war, including the separation of families, the slaughter of the innocent, and the conversion of young children into killing machines. He never goes overboard with gore or violence, yet the impact always gets felt like a dagger in the chest.

It takes a very particular mindset to watch this film, not to mention an iron will to stick through its unsparing depiction of atrocity. (Seriously, it’s enough to make anyone remotely squeamish run back to finish the first season of “Grace and Frankie.”) Fukunaga also does not provide much of a strong narrative arc to keep a light at the end of “Beasts of No Nation” faintly visible throughout. He offers little comfort to its viewers as they follow Abraham Atta’s young Agu in his reluctant transition from child to killer under the aegis of Idris Elba’s warlord known only as Commandant.

The film plays like reading Agu’s biography – albeit one told with a bit of a tacked-on inspirational bent – rather than watching a story about him. Yet even at this pace, Fukunaga still finds a great rhythm for his audience, jolting them out of complacency as soon as they settle into a lull. Who knows how well that tactic is employed, however, on viewers who make liberal use of their television remote.  B2halfstars

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