Monday, October 19, 2015

Beasts of No Nation Review

Do you avoid cinema that is difficult to watch? A lot of people do. I want to talk them out of that approach and try to explain the level of artistry they are missing out on, but for some it is simple: movies are meant for entertainment, for fun and escapism, and there is nothing fun about honest and disturbing stories baked in a haunting level of realism.

I watch movies for entertainment, fun and escapism as well, but I find those things in other places beyond the story. Don't get me wrong, the story is typically vital and is what draws me in and holds my attention, but even when what is depicted on the screen is nauseating and brutal, a great film will make it impossible for me to look away. 

I am entertained by a director delivering his vision with a masterful hand. I find it fun to consider the large amount of extremely talented people pooling all of their resources together to make even the most subtle imagery or piece of dialogue feel memorable and profound. I escape from my own reality by transporting myself into a world that feels unfamiliar, by reminding myself that being scared of a suburban routine and a nine hour work day feels quite silly when you witness fictionalized horrors that are unfortunately pulled from fact.

It's safe to refer to the new film Beasts of No Nation as groundbreaking because such a label was applicable regardless of it's quality. A Netflix original feature that became available to stream the very same day it was released in theaters, millions of people were legally given access to a brand new film without paying an extra cent beyond the monthly fee for the streaming service, which is what separates this story from the now extremely common VOD releases throughout each year. Sure, it can make financial sense to pay the 8 or so dollars to watch a movie on a Friday night at home through your cable company rather than the cost of tickets and soda and popcorn and the eternal struggle of finding a babysitter, but as a Netflix subscriber with no plans to unsubscribe, Beasts of No Nation truly feels free. 

It's almost too good to be true that it also happens to be brilliant. A remarkable, Oscar worthy film that is accessible from my couch, snacking out of my own refrigerator and the option of hitting the pause button to use the bathroom that sits 10 feet away. I had October 16th circled on my calendar for some time, the exciting potential of taking in a new release to start a weekend while not having to change out of my pajamas, and my enthusiasm shot through the roof with each passing expertly crafted minute.

A dramatic war film that takes place in Africa, which part I don't recall being specified but frankly, it's irrelevant. What matters is the devastation of the combat and the effect it has on both the region and the people that occupy it. The story revolves around a young boy named Agu who finds himself separated from part of his family and horrifyingly having to watch other members being shot before his eyes. Suddenly he finds himself face to face with a militia known as the NDF, and he isn't so much recruiting into their ranks as he is forced to join the fight. 

The group is lead by a warlord played masterfully by Idris Elba, who should get serious consideration here from the Academy and he isn't alone. In my world we would hear Beasts of No Nation called as a nominee in multiple categories like Picture, Director, Screenplay and also for its stunning photography. What I can't help but wonder is if the Netflix streaming release method will hurt the films chances of being considered award worthy, not so much because it won't be taken seriously but because of the backlash of moving away from the traditional theatrical release. It would be a shame if Beasts of No Nation gets snubbed for reasons beyond its own quality. I don't give a shit how I saw the movie the first time. All that matters is how it moved me, and lord help me I was moved.

Cary Fukunaga, who became a popular name after the roaring success of the first season of the television series "True Detective", wrote, photographed and directed this picture and across the board he knocked the ball out of the damn park. I have no experience in filmmaking myself, but I always assume that the most challenging aspect of writing hard hitting material like this is finding a balance between demonstrating enough brutality to get the point across without going overboard and desensitizing the violence. You can only punch the audience in the gut so many times before we get sick of it and those blows lose the value of their impact, and this is where Fukunaga succeeds so admirably. Sure, Beasts of No Nation is an extremely difficult pill to swallow, but that is a compliment to what it achieves rather than a reason to stay away and avoid seeing it. When I got hit, I got hit really, really hard, and those punches will hurt for a long, long time.

I want them to hurt. I want to revisit the pain again. I want to watch the decent of Agu as we watch his sense of humanity come crumbling down, but not revel in it. No, what Beasts of No Nation does so incredibly well that officially convinced me that it is one of the finest works of 2015 is that it somehow feels hopeful and optimistic after surviving the fog of war that clouds a vast majority of the film.

"I just want to be happy in this life."

As the credits rolled, my stomach hurt and I was exhausted emotionally, and yet I was smiling. Beasts of No Nation did it all for me, an extraordinary piece of cinema that can be viewed today from the comfort of your own home.



  1. This one was really hard to watch, I agree. Still one of the bests this year though! I hope that both Elba and the boy get recognition. They were equally fantastic.

    1. I agree completely yet I can't help but assume the performance of the boy will be ignored. Perhaps he will get recognition from some of the various critic groups as they give awards for new breakthrough performances, but for big award shows I think the only acting nom possibility is Elba.

  2. I checked this out on a whim and loved it! Definitely making my top 10 of the year so far, and yes it was hard to watch at some points, but damn it the acting is through the roof!

    1. Glad you loved it Cody! The performances were outstanding, really helped establish the authentic feel of the whole experience.