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‘Beasts of No Nation’ First Reviews: Idris Elba and Cary Fukunaga Put Netflix Into the Oscar Game

'Beasts of No Nation' First Reviews: Idris Elba and Cary Fukunaga Put Netflix Into the Oscar Game

The latest evidence of Netflix’s growing cultural footprint arrives with “Beasts of No Nation,” Cary Joji Fukunaga’s harrowing story of African child soldiers. Premiering to strong, sometimes stunned reviews at the Venice Film Festival, the movie heads thence to Telluride and Toronto, marking the streaming service’s attempt at getting into the Oscar race outside of the documentary category. Fukunaga, who also wrote the script and serves as his own cinematographer, wins praise across the board in the first reviews, both for the movie’s visual style and the performances he draws from Idris Elba, as a murderous warlord, and especially young Ghanian newcomer Abraham Attah. Several critics say “Beats” is too long, and even those who love it suggest its dark subject matter and largely unknown cast will have a hard time drawing audiences to theaters, but of course, that’s not the only place its opening: The movie will be available to Netflix subscribers day-and-date with its limited theatrical release on October 16. 

Peter Bradshaw, Guardian

Director Cary Fukunaga has handled projects as diverse as the migrant drama “Sin Nombre,” a “Jane Eyre” adaptation with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, and episodes of TV’s “True Detective.” This film, premiering at the Venice film festival, is his best film yet. Fukunaga brings flair, muscular storytelling, directness and a persuasively epic sweep to this brutal, heartrending movie about child soldiers and a civil war in an imaginary West African country, based on the 2005 novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala. It is a tale of fear, degradation and abusive dysfunction — a violent and disorientating nightmare with a shiver of Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” Idris Elba gives an outstanding performance as a charismatic and sinister warlord who finds that military power, however intoxicating, is subject to the fickle imperatives of politics, and the suit-wearing opportunists in the cities far from the country badlands he has come to rule.

Jessica Kiang, The Playlist

Surely one of the most beautiful films about ultimate ugliness ever, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s immersive and profoundly moving “Beasts of No Nation” is a hollowing experience — it reaches in and scoops you out, piece by piece, until all that’s left is a cavernous shame at being a person who lives in a world where this story can happen. In this it is exactly the film that needed to be made about the ultimate degradation of morality represented by the practice of turning children into soldiers, and exactly the film that Uzodinma Iweala’s remarkable novel deserved to inspire. Matching Fukunaga’s proven storytelling grace with a story truly worth the telling, the result is explosively authentic and yet lyrical, making an utterly inhumane and alien situation both completely real and completely abstract. It becomes the cumulative anguish of so many similar stories (our press notes suggest there are anything from 250,000 to 500,000 child soldiers in existence right now) distilled into one small boy. And the battleground is not just the dilapidated towns and jungles of his unnamed African home, but the far more valuable and vast territory of his soul.

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter

Like the acclaimed 2005 debut novel of the same name by Nigerian-American writer Uzodinma Iweala on which it is based, the film plays out its grim story in an unnamed country, as rebels without a known cause or affiliation ruthlessly attack the general populace, as well as government forces when they find them, on behalf of a Supreme Commander. No ideology is brandished, no ideals are espoused; it’s just a constant life of warfare and meager rations and no sense that, once victory is achieved, life will be much different than it was before. The significant decision not to identify a particular country, ideology or religion cuts two ways. Favoring the general over the specific always removes a certain urgency to a story such as this and also encourages guessing over who and what the tale is supposed to represent (there is no doubt that Iweala’s novel is, by implication, about Nigeria). But the sad truth is that a narrative like this could credibly be set in any number of post-colonial nations, and getting bogged down in what actually happened in this or that country could sap the tale of its penetrating application to many locales.

John Bleasdale, Cine Vue

The parody of military discipline — a repeated call of response “How does the Commandant look?”, “He looks alright” — and the trappings of a western military tradition is as arbitrary and false as Agu and his friends playing in their imaginary TV, but this kind of play, this kind of imagining, murders thousand. Agu befriends a mute child soldier Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) and with the rest of the squad friendships develop. Drugs are taken to facilitate the murdering and, in a beguiling sequence, the jungle turns purple as the troop attacks. Visually, Fukunaga makes the beauty of the surroundings a counterpoint to the ugliness of what men are doing there. As the Commandant is called to a meeting with the Supremo (Jude Akuwudike), it’s obvious that his power is on the wane and the troop soon finds itself on the point of breaking up. Having portrayed the descent into hell so effectively, there’s almost no place for Fukunaga to go. No resolution can truly compensate and redeem what we have already seen. Things fall apart, you might say. Fukunaga and his actors – especially the two leads – have managed to create a riveting drama which is suitably appalling.

Fionnuala Hannigan, Screen Daily

Full of committed performances, particularly from Elba and the impressive young actor Abraham Attah, “Beasts of No Nation” is a project of considerable integrity which makes for a consistently-engrossing, if over-long, viewing experience. It is grim, often harsh and occasionally trips over to nightmarish, “Heart of Darkness” territory. Like the central character of the Commandant, played so effectively by Elba, it also struggles to hold onto its power throughout.

Robbie Collin, Telegraph

The film can get so emotionally and spiritually punishing that it needs Elba’s industrial magnetism to keep you on side. And vile as the Commandant may be, he’s a strong showcase for the actor’s talents: while we know he can do both brooding and bombastic in his sleep, it’s hard to think of another one of his roles, other than perhaps DCI John Luther, that blends those two moods together this successfully. Yet ultimately, this is Agu’s story, and it’s the prodigiously talented Attah who gives this pulverising war movie its soul, and offers in its later scenes the flickering prospect of redemption.

Justin Chang, Variety

Having moved with growing confidence from a slick Mexican gangland saga (“Sin Nombre”) to a tony Victorian lit adaptation (“Jane Eyre”) to a crackerjack American crime serial (season one of “True Detective”), writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga pulls off another chameleonlike turn with this artful, accomplished but not entirely sustained adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 debut novel, never quite finding an ideal cinematic equivalent for the singular spareness and ferocity of the author’s prose. By turns lucid and a bit logy, and undeniably overlong, it’s nevertheless the rare American movie to enter a distant land and emerge with a sense of lived-in human experience rather than a well-meaning Third World postcard.

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