Overview: A young boy in a war-torn nation is conscripted into a rebel militia led by a charismatic, but dangerous, commander. Netflix; 2015; Rated R; 137 minutes.
VOD Killed The Theatrical Star: You most likely won’t be able to see Beasts of No Nation in the multiplex, with most movie theater chains boycotting the film due to its simultaneous VOD release on Netflix. This may not have made a difference if this were one of the many contemporary blockbuster films better suited to television, but director Cary Fukunaga, who ironically rose to prominence while working on the television series True Detective, has a decidedly cinematic style. The cheeky opening shot begins with a broken TV acting as a frame, before pulling back to reveal a fuller, broader image. Fukunaga’s film offers a Terrence Malick-ian trip into the heart of darkness, replete with whispered voice-over narration about God, and brightly-lit montages set to an ambient music score. Is it a film that demands to be seen on the big screen? Not necessarily. But it would undoubtedly benefit from being seen on a screen that doesn’t have Facebook notifications vying for the viewer’s attention in the corner of the screen.
What Is It Good For: The problem, then, is that the film actually plays better the less attention you pay it. It’s easy to mistake Fukunaga’s admittedly impressive chops for genuinely bold creative vision if you’re not looking too closely. After all, the film does set itself apart from other movies of its ilk in a number of ways. The score is more Brian Eno than Hans Zimmer. The cinematography is more graceful than gritty. Its emotional beats are emphasized by a respectful removedness rather than histrionics. Instead of slowly ramping up to the finale, the narrative slowly peters out. It just doesn’t look or feel like other major war movies, which is almost enough to distract the viewer from the fact that it’s exactly like other war movies. Fukunaga is a great director for the project, but is script is regrettably beholden to convention. There’s nothing inherently wrong in relying on genre tropes. It’s just that the quality of the filmmaking can’t excuse their use if it only serves to distract the viewer from them. Fukunaga’s sophomore outing is beautifully made, but to what end?
Stopped Short: Fukunaga confuses mild formal inventiveness for bringing something new to the table. If he had gone a little further; if he hadn’t restricted his most interesting experiments to a brief drug sequence; if he had allowed Idris Elba’s Commandant to remain ambiguously affable; if he had come up with something to say beyond, as one character puts it, “Fuck you. Life is sad,” then perhaps the film could have been the singular war movie it’s trying to be. Fukunaga has all the pieces in place, but he just doesn’t follow through. Beasts of No Nation sets higher standards for itself than it can accomplish.
Overall: Fukunaga directs with the elegant distance characteristic of his work, but he is aesthetically out of step with his shallow and familiar script.