The first shot of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation is framed through an empty television — a flourish that eventually makes sense (our protagonist and his friends are trying to sell it as an “imagination TV,” acting out scenes behind it), but plays, for savvy audiences, like an inside joke. It’s an accidental one; Beasts had already been shot by the time it was acquired (for a reported $12 million) by Netflix, which is releasing it in 31 theaters on Friday, the very same day it will begin streaming on the service. But that opening shot serves as a reminder, for its theatrical audience, that most of those who see it will do so on a television, or an iPad, or an iPhone. To put it mildly, it’s not the ideal way to see a movie like this. But it’s also apparently the price of doing business when you’re making a movie for grown-ups these days.
Fukunaga, who directed and wrote the screenplay (adapting Uzodinma Iweala’s novel), tells the story of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy in an unnamed African country. In a gentle voiceover, he describes a difficult but warm life: working little hustles with his friends, horsing around with his older brother, hanging out with his elderly grandfather. And then the soldiers arrive. His village comes under fire, his mother is sent away for her own safety, and the men in his family are executed in front of him. Agu is left to his own devices in the forest, until he’s captured by a group of child soldiers and brought in front of their “commandant” (Idris Elba).
He cuts quite a figure, this man. Clad in berets and camouflage, he’s charismatic, unwavering in his confidence, rousing his troops and leading them in chants as smoke curls lazily from the cigarette that dangles perpetually between his fingers. “Leave this one under my charge,” he tells them, of Agu. “I will be training him to be a warrior.”
That training includes learning how to fight, how to handle a gun, how to wield a machete, and how to engage in combat. But equally present, it becomes clear, are mind games and power plays, both amongst the soldiers and between them and their leader. He’s a study in duality, projecting the strength of a military commander, and the weakness of a man who’s literally letting children do his fighting for him. As Beasts progresses, that weakness becomes the subject of the film — how he abuses his power, and allows his actions to be determined by pettiness and ego. It’s a tremendous performance, which isn’t much of a surprise coming from an actor of Elba’s weight and skill.
Young Attah is equally impressive, particularly in the picture’s home stretch, which emphasizes that an experience like this is not something one merely walks away from; old habits, old attitudes, and old fears die hard. And he handles several difficult moments along the way with grace and empathy, chief among them the scene when his commandant tells him, for the first time, “Agu, you are going to kill this man.”
Fukunaga shoots that scene, and much of the picture, from Agu’s eye level, focusing hard on the victim’s pleading face as Elba taunts him, out of frame. In the aftermath, the sound is muted, overwhelmed by rumbling. The director is putting us in the boy’s head, in that scene and several others — it’s a journey seen through his eyes and heard through his ears, visceral and disturbing. Yet Beasts maintains a peculiar sense of remove from the action, which ultimately situates it firmly in the position of “very good movie,” rather than great one; it wants to immerse itself entirely in Agu’s experience, yet the filmmaker can’t resist standing aloft in scenes that underscore the soldiers’ ages and their actions, and pointing out easy ironies.
Yet that (and the narrative monotony that makes the picture feel somewhat longer than its 136 minutes) is a small complaint to register; this is an important film, in terms of both artistic merit and marketplace innovation. And, in this case, they kind of go hand in hand; Beasts is exactly the kind of challenging, mid-budget, adult-oriented movie that doesn’t get made often enough at the studio level — but is increasingly becoming the wheelhouse of streaming services with prestige to gather and subscription fees to burn. Thus, Amazon is making movies with auteurs like Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, and Terry Gilliam, while Netflix is following up Beasts with the Brad Pitt-fronted David Michôd film War Machine and the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The logistics of such arrangements aren’t always ideal. Beasts’ vast visual scope and patient storytelling aren’t entirely suited to the kind of macro-visual and background-noise experience so typical of Netflix viewing. But the upside of a Netflix pickup is undeniable, in terms of not just the $12 million check, but also the opportunities for exposure not usually accorded to downbeat dramas about child soldiers in Africa. “The movie is a very difficult subject,” the director admitted last spring. “It could easily become one of those films where someone’s like, ‘That seems too serious, I don’t wanna watch that.’ But I think that by nature of the force of Netflix being behind it, it’ll be in people’s faces enough that they’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try,’ and I think once they start watching it, hopefully they’ll be consumed by it.”
The key question, at this point, is whether the paid theatrical and free streaming experience can exist side by side. Within days of the Netflix pickup, the country’s four major theatrical chains predictably announced a boycott of the film, citing its violation of their customary 90-day theatrical-to-home window. It will instead show on independent screens, via the Landmark chain.
In 2005, Landmark was at the front of another revolution in theatrical exhibition: they were one of the few chains that would screen Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble, a film that sent the industry into an uproar by daring to debut in theaters and on demand on the same day. In the decade since, that strategy has become the norm for independent films (in fact, many make their VOD debut ahead of theatrical), confirming — as director Soderbergh and executive producer Mark Cuban asserted — that theatrical and home viewing experiences are different animals, for, in many facets, different audiences.
I suspect Beasts will have roughly the same outcome, and will suggest (as the indie day-and-date evolution does) the chains are merely digging in their heels, hanging on to an outdated business model and refusing to acknowledge the shifts in their audience, and in the technology available to them. Quite coincidentally, your correspondent has recently been reading The Speed of Sound, Scott Eyman’s detailed history of the shift from silent to sound cinema, a book filled with stories of industry bigwigs who couldn’t see, or refused to acknowledge, which way the wind was blowing. Is Beasts the next Jazz Singer? Hardly. But the resistance to what it represents sounds awfully familiar.
Beasts of No Nation debuts on Netflix and opens in limited release on Friday.