The word from the Venice Film Festival was that Cary Fukunaga‘s Beasts Of No Nation is a riveting, beautifully captured, somewhat traumatizing portrait of a child’s experience of guerilla warfare in Africa, and no one’s idea of an easy sit or an engaging exotic adventure. Well, I saw Beasts last night at Telluride’s Werner Herzog theatre, and it’s a masterful thing that demands everyone’s attention — often jarring and horrific and in very few ways “pleasant” but a churning, ravishing injection, a cauldron of mad-crazy intense, something undeniably alive and probing and deep-in-the-bush authentic. Yes, it’s horrific but never without exuberance or a trace of humanism or a lack of a moral compass.
And it’s been made, mind you, by a cultivated, cool-cat artist — a guy of moderate temperament who wears fashionable glasses and cool-looking sweaters (check the below photo I took last night of Fukunaga and Beasts star Abraham Attah at last night’s after-party) — but who holds back just enough but never wimps out, who jumped right in and shot the whole thing himself in Ghana over a mere seven weeks, a guy who knows how to whip up strange brews and visual lather.
We’ve all seen violent films that try to merely shock or astonish or cheaply exploit — Beasts of No Nation is way, way above that level of filmmaking. It’s often about cruel, horrifying acts but filtered through a series of moral, cultured, considered choices, about what to use and not use and how to assemble it all just so. And yet over half of Beasts is gripped by madness — a kind of fever known only by war veterans and particularly (as this is the specific focus of the film) by children who’ve been forced into killing by ruthless elders.
This is a major, triple-A-approved, Apocalypse Now-influenced African inferno flick — a real original, like nothing I’ve ever quite seen before, like nothing I knew how to handle. Steven Soderbergh is going to shit his pants when he sees it. Anyone who attends Sunday services at the Church of the Devoted Cinephile will have to grim up, man up and buy a ticket. (And that means women also.) It’s harsh and brutal but poetic — one of those films that’ll hold up a decade or two or a half-century from now. If you miss or avoid it you’ll be embarassed to admit this down the road.
A few days ago Variety‘s Justin Chang called Beasts “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,” but to me it’s more that just a lived-in thing — it’s orchestrated and painted and cooked to a full boil. Start to finish it has a feeling of keen impulse mixed with carefully honed art.
Did I feel gut-punched when Beasts ended last night? Everyone did. When Fukunaga and Attah and costar Idris Elba took a bow at the front of the auditorium after it ended only some in the crowd applauded — everyone else was too stunned, sitting there with the wind half knocked out. Even at the after-party I was having trouble putting words together.
There’s a scene of a machete killing in this thing that is probably the most horrific I’ve ever witnessed in any movie I’ve ever seen, and made all the more so because one of the two killers is little Agu (Attah), whom we first meet as a happy little kid in a small African village, a kid with a good home, good parents, a sense of values and community.
A journalist friend who saw Beasts before last night told me he’d “rather have back surgery than see it again.” It goes without saying Beasts will almost certainly make the older members of the AMPAS fart brigade shriek and moan and run for the exit doors, but then that’s what they do…right? Every damn year they rebel when something outside their comfort zone comes along. They shouted “how dare you?” at Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio after an Academy screening of The Wolf of Wall Street.
But you know what? Fuck ’em. They’re always saying the same thing, which is that they want comfort and not art, which is sometimes disturbing or shocking at first glance. You know what’s “comforting” but nonetheless tough and rigorous, if less radically “artful” than Beasts? Tom McCarthy‘s Spotlight. This movie is going to be so fucking popular among guild and Academy members it’ll make your head spin.
Attah and Fukanaga playing table hockey during at the Sheridan bar after-event.
Beasts of No Nation, which will soon premiere on Netflix along with a limited theatrical opening, is one of the few films from which I haven’t precisely derived “enjoyment” that I’ll definitely watch once or twice more.
I’m now going to make a point of reading the source novel — Uzodinma Iweala’s same-titled book.
Beasts should be a Best Picture nominee but I’m not sure if it’ll make it. Maybe it will. Fukunaga definitely deserves a Best Director nomination for not only adapting Iweala’s book but shooting it himself Soderbergh-style, and doing so in the rough and tumble of rural Africa in less than two months. Idris Elba, who plays the central figure of the “Commandant” who turns Agu into a murderer, could see some action as a Best Supporting Actor contender. Attah surely deserves special attention for nailing a tough experience with his first-ever performance.
During the after-party I spoke to Awards Daily‘s Sasha Stone, and she was already getting pissed about how some of those who had seen Beasts were talking, about how it will probably scare away the same people who refused to watch the DVD screeners of 12 Years A Slave they’d been sent in the mail.
She wrote this morning that she expects to be “disappointed and surprised by the way many of my fellow colleagues [will be] talking about this film. They will be ‘right’ because they will have helped perpetuate a ‘muted’ response to a film that can really only be described as a masterpiece. It won’t have a chance, not anywhere, because ‘they’ won’t like it.”