There’s an accidental symbolism in the opening shot in “Beasts of No Nation,” a movie that has generated nearly as much attention for its distribution plan as its content. Writer-director Cary Fukunaga’s camera peers through a hollowed-out television at a soccer game featuring a group of adolescent boys in an unnamed West African country. Slowly, he pulls back to reveal the beguiling image of the empty device in the middle of a vacant field, setting the stage for a drama that pushes beyond the limitations of Western media analysis.
However, it’s also an apt metaphor for the multiple ways in which “Beasts of No Nation” will be presented to the world in the near future: Netflix plans to open the movie globally on its platform on October 16, the same day that audiences can see it in theaters. This is hardly a new approach — the day-and-date strategy has been part of the specialty business for years now — but for a lush, visually spectacular wartime drama engineered for wide release, the strategy represents a new kind of choice.
In “Beasts of No Nation,” young Agu (Abraham Attah) survives a vicious attack on his village by local militants who kill the rest of his family. Escaping into the dense jungle, he quickly runs out of resources, only to be rescued by yet another band of violent revolutionaries led by the menacing Commandant (Idris Elba). It’s here that he’s trained in the horrific antics of invading other villages and committing the same atrocities that destroyed him family. Fukunaga, who also serves as the cinematographer, maintains full control of his immersive canvas. The spectacular wide shots and vivid colors of the jungle scenery are constantly at odds with the mounting violence.
One could argue that Fukunaga, whose previous work ranges from the immigration drama “Sin Nombre” to the first season of “True Detective,” uses a lyrical visual style that fetishizes the abstract “African war zone” where the action takes place. Yet that same element is embedded in the material, which draws from the 2005 novel by Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala. In both cases, the epic scope of the canvas represents a vibrant environment filled with mysteries for the young protagonist.
Attah’s performance, whose character narrates the story as it moves along, marks one of the most impressive screen debuts in recent memory. His ambiguous expressions suggest a sense of deep contemplation and uncertainty, but not the intellectual tools to fully understand the chaos around him. Taught to hack up one captured local with a machete (“It’s like chopping wood,” the Commandant casually suggests), Agu experiences his first kill in haunting slo-mo that takes on a lyrical dimension as it might for more traditional rites of passage. Even when he’s brainwashed by the Commandant to go on murderous rampages, he sees rich, exciting possibilities. That makes “Beasts of No Nation” into a graphic coming of age drama under the guise of a visceral war movie.
Miles ahead of Fukunaga’s other projects in terms of breadth and thematic sophistication, “Beasts of No Nation” blatantly recalls “Apocalypse Now” for its spectacular use of scenery to convey the mixture of excitement and dread unique to the warzone. In that respect, the movie demands to find its audience on a big screen, where the immersive palette and detailed landscape take on a sharp expressionistic quality. Anyone watching “Beasts of No Nation” on their high definition television, skipping out on the limited theatrical run, misses one crucial part of the equation.
However, Fukunaga shows less interest in exploring the horrors of war than their traumatic impact on an innocent target. “Beasts of No Nation” is never less than a strikingly intimate tale, lingering often on Attah’s face as Agu witnesses a series of atrocities or attempts to understand the Commandant’s own vain mission.
To that end, “Beasts of No Nation” works as two different kinds of movies. Both poetic depiction of anarchic conflict and intimate portrait of a shifting belief system, it offers dueling access points that depend on the conditions where it’s experienced. The possibility that anyone will bother to see it in theaters is a different story, but it certainly seems engineered to succeed in both arenas.
Wherever they’re seen, the gorgeous textures of many scenes should deliver. “Fighting is what we do,” the Commandant asserts, in a call-to-arms that energizes young Agu to the point where he becomes trapped in a new reality. At one point, in the midst of an ongoing slaughter, the greenery fades to a forbidding red. With so many images to soak in, characterization winds up the weakest link. Though Elba brings much to the role, the Commandant is ultimately a feeble villainous creation whose corruption seems almost too precise. Of course, that itself speaks to Agu’s narrow understanding of the forces surrounding him.
Despite its two-and-half hour running time, “Beasts of No Nation” offers few major plot developments (another area where the “Apocalypse Now” comparison doesn’t hold up). As a mood piece, however, it sounds a sharp, alarming note by implying that Agu may never recover from his experiences. “I cannot go back to doing child things,” he asserts, but the finale suggests anyone in his situation can at least try. The closing image mirrors the first shot, this time without the television frame. Whether or not viewers see “Beasts of No Nation” through one of their own, the movie provides an effective window into an underrepresented world.
Netflix releases “Beasts of No Nation” on its platform and in limited theaters on October 16.