Friday, October 9, 2015
BEASTS OF NO NATION Isn't The Amazing Film I Wanted It To Be
When I first heard that writer/director Cary Fukunaga and Hollywood heartthrob Idris Elba were forming their own superhero empire (i.e. teaming up for a new movie), I was ecstatic. Then I discovered the premise of the movie, and I became less so. And now that I've seen the movie, I can only muster the following reaction: meh.
It's a disappointing take on BEASTS OF NO NATION, for sure. In my dream scenario, a Netflix original production with the two giants would have come in the form of something like Daredevil or, hell, True Detective. Instead, BEASTS OF NO NATION is a derivative look at the story of a child soldier in Africa (Agu, played by the now 15-year-old Abraham Attah), which really could have been the story of any African child soldier in that the film fails to characterize Agu. The way it was told was just so expected, could have been any number of child soldier dramas Hollywood loves to love. Which is especially surprising to say because Fukunaga is anything but a predictable filmmaker. Here it just seems like he watched a lot of African child soldier films (including the 2012 drama War Witch) and copied everything they had in common--down to the tyrannical, morally reprehensible Commander played by Idris Elba (whose dramatic performances I still find largely unconvincing). I was just...underwhelmed.
This isn't to say that the movie itself isn't good (though it's a bit too long) or that the lead performance isn't compelling. The cinematography is striking. And Attah is particularly effective, revealing a talent that far exceeds his age. You believe that Agu is in agony when he is separated from his parents early in the film, that he is terrified of being alone for the first time, and suffering through daily emotional and psychological torture under the commander's reign. His portrayal is visceral, Certainly more so than Elba, who while his commitment to the role is undeniable, it was unaffecting, unmemorable even. (I'm sure I'm not going to win over any new readers by saying anything negative about Elba, but so be it. I still think he's hot and should be the next James Bond. So that's something).
BEASTS OF NO NATION will likely be a film that we'll hear about a lot of this awards season, about which I still feel unsettled. Though I'm happy to hear that folks are excited about Fukunaga and Elba (as well as Attah), but just as much as Hollywood champions films like this it should also get behind African narratives like The First Grader--a criminally underrated film that is deeply effective. Once again, Hollywood is supporting a very one-dimensional look at marginalized characters, and ignoring all other stories. So, I can offer nothing but a side eye at that.
BEASTS OF NO NATION opens both in theaters and on Netflix October 16.