As I write this, the latest trailer for "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" has just premiered to the glee of millions of fans around the world. This 7th installment of the popular space opera franchise will likely become this year's box office champ when all is said and done. But when we look back on 2015, the biggest story will more likely be Netflix's entrance into the big leagues of film production with the harrowing war drama "Beasts of No Nation".
Based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, "Beast of No Nation" tells the nightmarish story of a young African boy forced to fight in a civil war. His name is Agu (Abraham Attah), an innocent, typically carefree boy from a loving family. Agu lives in a small village which has been converted to a buffer zone, effectively an oasis from the violent civil war raging in the surrounding areas. But one day, his peaceful life is upended when the war arrives on his doorstep, after the fall of the presiding government makes way for military rule. During the chaos to come, Agu becomes irreparably separated from his family and escapes to the jungle. But soon, he is captured by another rebel group and forced to join their ranks as a child soldier. As Agu becomes privy to the horrors of war, he finds his youthful innocence slipping away by the second. Before long, he starts to feel like more of a beast than a human being.
As Agu goes through his descent into a version of hell, director Fukunaga plunges us into this nightmarish world alongside our diminutive protagonist. With an unflinching eye, forces our gaze towards the most unsavory images of inhumane violence and cruelty. And throughout, the film is surprisingly unsentimental too, maintaining a key focus on the aggressors rather than the victims.
But through the muck of war, Fukunaga impresses with some stunning directorial flourishes. Like an early long shot of the jungle which dwarfs Agu with its imposing vastness, or a later scene where the Commandant (Idris Elba) leads a march to ambush a village, an image that could almost pass for a parade with its kinetic energy. Indeed, even as you would want to look away, Fukunaga holds your attention with his impressive technique. In doing so, he lends visceral power to the simultaneous adrenaline rush and terror of war.
But even more insightful is Fukunaga's superb screenplay, which is worthy of dissecting and examination long after the lights go down. Touching on the many complex aspects of the psychology underpinning war and its relation to masculinity and Africanism - too deep to elaborate in a film review - he leaves nothing on the table. Most interestingly, the script emphasizes the irony of how rebellions are fortified by exploiting people's inherent deference to authority figures (so provocatively illuminated in 2012's "Compliance"). As such, the film paints a nuanced portrait of evil through its array of characters, particularly Agu and the Commandant. Representing the "followers" and "leaders" which fuel such incomprehensible brutality, Attah and Elba make a dynamic duo with some of the best naturalistic acting in spite of the challenging material. Attah's transition from abject fear to resigned self-assurance, and Elba's constantly vibrant presence are truly a sight to behold.
There are times when the relentless violence depicted in "Beasts of No Nation" takes on a numbing effect. At one point during my first viewing (yes, I've seen it twice already), my sister even turned to me and said "This isn't even making me sad. I'm just angry." And indeed, I nodded in agreement. But even if it's not the tearjerker you may have hope for, you would be hard-pressed to find a film that is this perceptive about the world we live in. While it may seem completely removed from our reality, it forces us to see ourselves in Agu and his experiences with loss, existentialism and our frightening capacity to cause harm to others. And ultimately, this is what makes "Beasts of No Nation" such a devastating, astonishing achievement.
Hopefully, the Academy will recognize this strong work in some way. Certainly, Idris Elba deserves to be in the conversation for Best Supporting Actor. And with Netflix's support, I can easily see a successful push for Fukunaga to be recognized for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director and Best Picture as well.