Beasts of No Nation: Netflix bursts into Oscar race with thrilling drama

Netflix is changing the entertainment business. Again.

After revolutionizing how we consume home video with their DVD mailing and online streaming services, the Internet mega-power broke barriers with their original television content, winning Emmys for “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black.” This massive change allowed viewers to binge watch an entire season within days of watching the season premiere while never having to stop for a commercial break.

Netflix is back again with another groundbreaking endeavor, seeking to revolutionize feature films once again by producing their own full length feature films and releasing them simultaneously online and in theaters. While a major threat to the movie theater industry, such efforts could be game changing for audiences and for independent filmmakers trying to expand their reach.

While Netflix has been successful in the past with documentaries “The Square” and “Virunga,” their biggest foray into feature filmmaking, “Beasts of No Nation,” is sure to leap right into the middle of Academy Award consideration in both the Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor categories.

Based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, “Beasts” follows a young West African boy, Agu, taken in by a charismatic warlord known simply as Commandant after his family is murdered by the government’s army amid civil war. Expertly made, the movie is a gripping, soul searching tailspin through one of the most devastating situations realistically imaginable. While fictional, every single second of “Beasts” is plausible and drags the viewer through an experience not to be missed.

Abraham Attah, a newcomer from Ghana, leaps into the hearts of audiences with his bold and soulful portrayal of Agu, a young boy forced into manhood under the worst possible circumstances. Attah plays Agu like an open book and with no apprehensions, providing an unique authenticity to “Beasts” that few other actors – experienced or otherwise – could have pulled off. While his journey onto the screen is most similar to Oscar nominee Barkhad Abdi of “Captain Phillips,” Attah’s effortless performance far surpasses Abdi’s and would be more deserving of acclaim in the Best Actor race, though that field will inevitably be too crowded for Attah to break through.

Idris Elba mesmerizes as Commandant, dominating the screen both in his aggressive demeanor and impactful, charismatic soliloquies. Even those familiar with his work on “The Wire” or his turn as Nelson Mandela in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” will find Elba nearly unrecognizable as he melts into the brutal soothsayer. The performance clearly establishes Elba as the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor, though some voters will be turned off from the gruesome brutality “Beasts” displays.

Without a doubt, the authenticity of “Beasts of No Nation” is undeniable. Though almost every viewer has no clue what life in a war-ravaged, third world country is like, director Cary Fukunaga transports audiences into realities that few have ever experienced so vividly. “Beasts” is certainly not for the faint at heart as the heart pounding war drama has Agu being forced to hack a man to death with a machete, rape and other graphic violence during the final two thirds of the film. Not all audiences will be able to make it through these challenging scenes.

But Fukunaga balances the brutality in such a way that it’s hard not to be in awe of the beauty of his work at times on a shot by shot, scene by scene basis – especially in a gorgeous section of “Beasts” where Agu participates in a village raid while high on a herbal hallucinogen. Fukunaga overexposes and accentuates the reds to a brilliantly stunning degree, making the actual events of the scene somewhat more tolerable to bear.

The film is written, directed and shot by Fukunaga, best known for the 2011 adaptation of “Jane Eyre” and directing the first season of HBO’s “True Detective.” Bold and beautiful from the outset, “Beasts of No Nation” is made for the big screen with its bold and vivid colors, probably needing movie theater technology to fully enjoy its nuances, especially during night scenes.

However, the film stands up on smaller screens for those enjoying at home or on the go via Netflix. “Beasts” is too good a movie and far too accessible for the average audience to be avoided. Viewers of appropriate age need to make whatever effort is needed to seek out “Beasts,” and the Netflix connection will help boost viewership far beyond whatever it might have drawn in only a limited theatrical release.

When the film’s content becomes almost too much for the viewer to stand, that’s when Fukunaga takes over, with his unique and picturesque visual style compensating for the brutality of “Beasts” with beauty. This counter-play works splendidly from start to finish, entrancing audiences in a way that war has not been shown since “Saving Private Ryan.”

Definitely among one of the five best films released so far in 2015, “Beasts of No Nation” has to be a serious contender for major awards early next year and firmly plants the flag in the ground for Netflix as someone to be reckoned with in feature filmmaking going forward.

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