Variety‘s Justin Chang and The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy have reviewed Cary Fukanaga‘s Beasts of No Nation, which screened today at the Venice Film Festival. Both critics agree that it’s riveting to sit through — a beautifully captured if somewhat traumatizing portrait of a child’s experience of guerilla warfare in Africa, and is therefore no one’s idea of an easy sit or an engaging exotic adventure, much less a date movie. But Idris Elba might have a shot at acting honors, although McCarthy and Chang don’t mention a possible category. I’ve been told that Elba’s role is more of supporting than lead, but what do I know?
Chang calls Beasts an “artful, accomplished but not entirely sustained adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 debut novel, never quite finding an ideal cinematic equivalent for the singular spareness and ferocity of the author’s prose. By turns lucid and a bit logy, and undeniably overlong, it’s nevertheless the rare American movie to enter a distant land and emerge with a sense of lived-in human experience rather than a well-meaning Third World postcard.”
McCarthy notes that while Fukanaga’s two previous features “also dealt with brutalizing rites of passage suffered by young people — Central Americans making their way through Mexico to the U.S. border in Sin Nombre, a 19th century English orphan girl’s harsh life in Jane Eyre — Beasts rates as the most disturbing of the three because of the way the pre-pubescent boy at its center is forced to become a ruthless killer.”
Chang describes it as “a drama that’s ultimately more persuasive on a pictorial level than it is compelling on a psychological one. And although the movie’s worthy, humanist themes are all but inscribed on every frame, the manner in which they coalesce somehow feels naggingly unspecific.”
I can sense in both reviews an effort to hold back a bit and avoid any kind gut reactions to the subject matter and to show as much respect for Fukanaga’s ambitions as possible, and to describe the film from a certain aesthetic distance for fear of suggesting that the reviewer is any kind of blunt-minded fellow who lacks sensitivity or didn’t think things through all the way to the bottom. What we need, I suspect, is someone to step into the breach and call it straight and plain.