The first Netflix original movie ever, Beasts of No Nation, opens through the border of a television screen. Ironic, because for the first time, we are viewing a movie that was released this week not on the screen of a theater, but from the comfort of our homes. This level of comfortability works against the visuals of the film, which are harrowing, but also plays along with what writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga attempts to show us in the opening.
The children play with the television border, using it to perform “programs” for various people around the village in order to try to score some money. Fukunaga films the scenes by using the camera as a POV into the kids’ programs and contrasts these harmless, childish antics against the harsh realities that fall outside the borders of the screen. As soldiers watch, guns in hand and from their post, it is not difficult to be reminded of the challenges facing these children on a daily basis.
Fukunaga keeps this up, ditching the television device after those first few sequences, by attempting to make us cringe and sit agape at the actions on screen. Mass shootings, family separations, rape, child killers, and carnage reigns in Beasts of No Nation, but for a film that shows us this war through the eyes of young boy named Agu (Abraham Attah), it never feels like we fully understand the conflict or the members within it who fall left and right for a cause they hardly know anything about.
Beasts of No Nation follows Agu after his mother and sister are sent away and his father and brother are killed by a government siege of his village in search of rebel soldiers. Following their deaths, Agu makes his way into the woods, coming across a rebel troop led by the forceful Commandant (Idris Elba), who takes Agu under his wing to train him to be a fighter. Agu agrees, not having much other choice, and quickly finds his place among the ranks of this small insurgence that for awhile works as a familial system for the child.
Fukunaga has never struggled with imagery, and Beasts of No Nation may be some of his best work yet. There’s a rolling sense to his work with the camera flowing through battles as if it were a person itself. Beasts of No Nation feels very much like Hotel Rwanda, Schindler’s List, or even 12 Years A Slave where no moment feels like rest and the momentum of darkness becomes almost too much to bear, but Fukunaga’s clean imagery is almost calming.
While undeniably beautiful, there is still a hollowness to the film’s characters and the audience’s feelings toward them. It is easy to share empathy for Agu — you would almost not be human if you didn’t — but it is hard to shake this sense that by the end of the film, you aren’t getting the full painted picture. Maybe that is the point of the film, much like in a scene between the Commandant and Supreme Commander Dada Goodblood (Jude Akuwudike) who tells the energetic leader that this war has become more of a PR skirmish rather than a fight for peace and equality. This crushing realization only fuels the detachment of the characters from the bigger picture and begins to tie the film to September 11.
It is hard to remiss the connections between the War on Terror and the fighting that takes place over the course of the film. A war that has gotten quickly out of hand, and is being sold differently by the leaders than with the ground forces, seems like something relevant to today, especially with the recent decision to stay in Afghanistan by President Obama. While the war in Beasts of No Nation is a different scale and beast entirely, the underlying decision-making of the leadership and the disgruntled ground forces at the lack of knowledge for the purpose of this bloodshed begins pull in the connection that brings a little more purpose to the story.
But in the end, something isn’t there. It isn’t the performances, it isn’t the direction, and it isn’t the work by young Abraham Attah, who steals the show as Agu, it is something with the story and the feeling of connection to the characters as we leave. After finishing the film, I was prepared to sit and reflect on what I had just viewed, but never found the passion to. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel for Agu or the people affected by this cruel war throughout the course of the movie, instead, I was left not feeling any real pull from the periphery of the movie — almost as if the gloss and gleam of Fukunaga’s camera work acted as a deception of true emotions and depth.
Beasts of No Nation is never a bad film, and it helps that Fukunaga is a true talent, but it never feels complete. The emotion is there, and the tears come too, but that real turn, that heart-wrenching gut-punch moment that made us all remember why we made the time to watch it was lacking. Amidst all the metaphors and havoc, we are left empty and feeling isolated — much like Agu.