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There are plenty of TV-related subplots to discuss in Beasts of No Nation, which, it should be noted, is a film. It’s the first movie to be simultaneously released in theaters and on Netflix, which produced the film. It’s the first feature from director Cary Fukunaga since his widely-praised first season of HBO’s True Detective. It’s also the first major starring role for Idris Elba, who won hardcore fans on BBC’s Luther, since 2013’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.
But as soon as the film begins, these subplots become moot—Beasts is a uniquely cinematic experience. It immerses the viewers in a violent, foreign world that begs for an escape. On TV, you might be tempted to change the channel during its most painful moments. It’s a lot harder to walk out of a theater.
The story begins—mercifully—on a note of levity: Four poor African children are walking through their town with the frame of a TV set, asking random passersby if they will pay to watch the television. Someone says yes, and they tell him to hold up the frame, while the kids act out several archetypical American genres. It’s a clever opening that highlights how Beasts of No Nation will subvert the Westernized view of impoverished Africa, which most of us only see on the news. It’s also the last laugh in the film, which veers almost immediately towards a gruesome, desensitizing sensibility that—while presumably accurate—ultimately numbs the viewer too much to ever be fully engaging.
Agu (Abraham Attah) is the child protagonist of this dark coming-of-age story. In an unnamed African country, his village is terrorized by a corrupt government army, and Agu flees into the jungle. Almost immediately he is found by the Commandant (Elba)—the leader of a massive army of child soldiers swathed in vivid, colorful rags. Elba is a towering presence, and not just physically. In their first meeting, the Commandant recognizes Agu as an orphan and presents himself as a father figure and protector. It feels like he has done it a hundred times before.
In these early scenes, Fukunaga sets the viewer down in a chaotic world, but you still feel like you are in capable hands. The battle scenes are vivid and terrifying, and the sound design is particularly effective—rarely have whizzing bullets felt so consequential. But he has trouble holding onto the narrative. There’s a traumatic scene about halfway through—Agu’s initiation into the group requires him to slaughter an innocent government worker—and Beasts really has nowhere to go after that.
Perhaps sensing that Agu’s arc has come to an end, Fukunaga turns his lens to the Commandant and his role in the larger rebel effort. After being passed over for a promotion (African warlords: They’re just like us!), he begins to lose his grip on the children he commands. These politics might be worth exploring on their own terms, but the diversion stops the film in its tracks, and Fukunaga, like the Commandant, never gets control again.
Despite its flaws, Beasts of No Nation deserves attention simply for showing us a world we don’t often see—in the movies or elsewhere. It’s one of film’s great social purposes—to magnify that which the world too easily hides—and one TV can’t accomplish so easily. In other words, see Beasts of No Nation on the big screen, or don’t see it at all.
Beasts of No Nation opens Friday at E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.