Writer-director Cary Fukunaga is seriously gifted, from grittily emotional border drama “Sin Nombre” and the gothic romance “Jane Eyre” with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender to “True Detective” Season One, with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. (Fukunaga had no input on Season Two; Pizzolatto wanted to run the show.) He’s a director who pushes past the ordinary toward excellence, and doesn’t seem to mind putting himself in difficult situations to do it. This $6 million movie has astonishing scale and scope for such a low-budget enterprise, including moving through towns with tons of detail and choreographed extras.
After “Beasts of No Nation” premiered to raves at Venice (review here), the film and its stars, Brit Idris Elba and Ghana discovery Abraham Attah, met warm receptions at Telluride and Toronto. (Watch my Telluride video with Fukunaga here, my TIFF video with Elba here.)
Fukunaga was plugging away on a screenplay about boy soldiers in Africa for years without finding the right angle; then he read a novel by Uzodinma Iweala that showed him the way: follow a young boy into the heart of darkness. The comparison to Joseph Conrad and Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” is apt, as young Agu (Attah) moves from innocent childhood with his family to lost orphan wandering the jungle, where he falls into a military camp where Commandant (an intimidating but vulnerable Elba) takes on the role of a Fagin-like parent/brainwasher, training young boys to take orders, handle guns and kill people. They smoke weed and alter their consciousness with drugs, becoming increasingly disconnected from their hideous reality.
Encouraged by Elba, whose mother was born in Ghana, Fukunaga shot in English-speaking West Africa. “They had an old filmmaking infrastructure there, though it died out in the 80s,” Elba told me in Telluride. “They make commercials and videos. Ghana ticked all the boxes.” When Elba agreed to star, Fukunaga beefed up the Commandant for him, he said, to show that “he had a brain and heart and charisma.”
The cast and crew camped out in the jungle, building a camp for 200 non-pro actors (including former boy soldiers from Sierra Leone and Liberia) who lived there as they got creative acting and military training (Ghana reluctantly supplied guns). Attah was found playing soccer on a field during an exhaustive casting search–“without the right Agu there is no film,” says Fukunaga. He worked closely with Attah, not entirely sure what he was capable of–particularly a pivotal moment at movie’s end. So he shot chronologically, capturing Attah’s innocence and then putting him through his military paces –and the rigors of shooting–until the climax. It has a huge emotional impact.
Netflix bought all world rights to the film for $12 million and is making it available to stream to 65 million subscribers on October 16 at the same time it goes to Landmark Cinemas nationwide, to qualify for the Oscar. “I encourage you to go to the cinema!” said Fukunaga in Telluride.
As far as the Oscars are concerned, Netflix is an unknown. Ted Sarandos is willing to spend money Netflix may never get back to ensure Oscar recognition (only their documentaries “The Square” and “Virunga” have been recognized so far). It’s mostly exhibitors who understandably disapprove of the service, not the subscribers who rent and stream Netflix movies. While Oscar voters can be skittish about pictures that are too violent and upsetting, they eventually came around to “12 Years a Slave,””Apocalypse Now,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “No Country for Old Men” and any number of war movies, from “Platoon” to “Saving Private Ryan.” If the critics continue to lavish praise, Academy members will just have to see “Beasts of No Nation.” At which point, the actors should be impressed with both Attah (in the Best Actor category) and Elba (supporting), and the writers, producers, directors and editors should admire Fukunaga and his production team.