It speaks to the state of cinema that one of the most beautiful, haunting, and powerful films of the year will be seen by most people on a streaming service, but such is case with the growing face of movies these days. The consolation is that movies manage to find a home after their brief festival run even if they are relegated to being content for the digital pipe as opposed to having a shot at being a truly exceptional in-theatre experience.
I’m lucky, then, to have experienced Beasts of No Nation as it was intended, at a glorious, hundred-year-old theatre no less. For Beasts is surely a film to be shared collectively in the dark, one whose power is amplified by the image looming over you while your fellow audience shares in the joys and shocks as the story unfolds.
The tale of a young boy who gets swept up in a civil war and becomes a child soldier, the film proves to be one of the most raw, unforgettable coming-of-age tales ever made. Newcomer Abraham Attah is the film’s core, and his performance is the stuff of legend. His role is both physically and psychologically complex as we the audience simply follow him through his travails.
The film is stunningly shot with some terrific narrative elements, but the direction by Cary Fukunaga may be most lauded for what he draws from young Attah. Kids on film, especially in such a storyline, will make or break the project, and here we see an absolutely riveting turn that provides much of the film’s weight. Fukunaga’s script, based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala, provides its rich ideas and unsettling moments.
The other performances are also quite excellent, with the star turn by Idris Elba being somewhat less of a surprise if nonetheless cause for goosebumps. As Commandant we get a role as iconic as Stringer Bell, a mighty, mighty performance that’s as close as we’re going to get to his King Lear anytime soon. The ebb and flow of power of this leader of a hardscrabble band is just stunning, the sheer physicality of the man overpowering, the tone of his voice regal. When Elba points to the forehead of one of his underlings, the skin creating a crater around the impact, we feel both the menace and the power of this man. When things go asunder we equally feel his vulnerability, and how even the strongest have bigger fish they need to worry about.
The story is largely allegorical, and the title echoes this – the country is never named, making this both no nation and every nation. As such there’s a kind of dark, archetypal, fairy tale undercurrent to the film. Its themes – the destruction of childhood, the vagaries of fate, the impotence of power against bigger power, the implausibility of redemption – are all subsumed within the context of what’s essentially a brutal action movie.
It’s this collision between a deeply philosophical work and a visceral, kinetic powerhouse of a film that sets Beasts of No Nation apart, a near perfect blending of ideas and action that result in a film that’s one of the best of the year.
The Upside: Stellar performances; moving storyline; impactful action sequences
The Downside: Most will see it on small screen