Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation faces many obstacles before even getting close to the Oscar race. Chief among them, the critics have not anointed it as a consensus darling. And that’s actually a good thing, considering how the face of film criticism has so dramatically mutated over the past decade. Major critics tend to reflect a certain kind of taste, just like the industry does. They are similar pieces of the same pie, without much variation. One has hipster cred and the other is usually the more widely accessible crowdpleaser. Neither of these groups has a spot for a film like this.
In AO Scott’s review, he seems impressed with the character development in the film but wanted it to be a more specific indictment of a specific war. Usually a war film will aim more precisely or else be read as “war is hell.” When The Hurt Locker came out, the filmmakers were quick to defend the movie more as an indictment of war itself than take a side with “good guys” vs. “bad guys” or seek to pass judgement. But despite that caveat, it was impossible not to see that The Hurt Locker was distinctly about America’s involvement in the two ongoing quagmires in the Middle East. They were specific and harrowing. What makes Beasts of No Nation equally harrowing, though, is not that it’s a specific war about a specific regime or a specific rebel group. Instead it’s about the very notion of the way children anywhere can be sucked into a corrupt power dynamic because they have no other choice, and how, even under those extreme circumstances, they grope around for whatever humanity is available to help them cope with the nightmare. In this film, the protag Agu has nothing. He has been raped, starved, beaten and made to kill before he even hits puberty. He has but one friend. One person who puts an arm around his shoulders and comforts him.
It’s important that Beasts of No Nation not depict any specific war because we’re meant to see events from Agu’s own intimate perspective. In this way, it’s like Lenny Abramson’s Room. Whatever the adult world is going through must be translated through the innocent eyes of a child – a child who’s trapped inside the story without the benefit of any larger context. While this point of view easier to contain, perhaps, when it’s about a kidnapped victim and her child, the same rationale holds true in Beasts of No Nation. How can we expect Agu to understand who and what the adults are fighting about? He’s told that a UN worker killed his father and that he must kill him to avenge his father’s death. Whether this is true or not is inconsequential. He is told to do it and so he must do it. He must kill or be killed. He can’t even take a side because he has no comprehension of what the two sides even want from one another.
All he knows is “yes, sir.” Fittingly, for their two linked themes and titles, Beasts of No Nation could be paired with Beasts of the Southern Wild in that both conjure a dreadful metaphor from the imaginations of young children. One has a kind of languid luxury to dwell in poetry. The other dwells in a world absent of any such comfort. Agu’s life as a happy kid was taken from him. There was nothing that made sense about any of it. His father is killed for no reason and all Agu knows is that he is told to run and so he does. Right now, hundreds upon thousands of Agus are being lured and coerced by false prophets and substitute father figures who tell them that they must avenge their righteous cause. Does any of that make any sense? Would any specific reason make it any less horrific?
Still, Beasts of No Nation will be a tough sit for many, particularly for industry voters who will be handed much easier options for their Friday night homework. Most will be choosing the nominees for Best Picture between Christmas and New Year’s. They’ll want to present their family and friends with movies they know everyone will like. That usually means feelgood dramas that offer us doomed humans some kind of alternative reality where we can be reassured that we’re good people who do good things. It is always much harder to open the jaws of what humanity really is at times and peer down deep inside the maw of monster.
Even if no lone critic has yet written the kind of review for Fukunaga’s ambitious labor of love that helps justify the need for film critics at all, at least actors, writers and directors in Hollywood are doing what they can to support the film. They are doing it because they believe in artists like Fukunaga who believe in pushing the boundaries of what defines modern cinema. They are doing it because there is still a driving impulse amonf true artists to preserve what Hollywood used to be before it became all about opening weekend numbers, international box office appeal, and bloated budgets with art nowhere in sight. Even the Oscar race has become insular enough that films tailored to the Academy’s taste are hand delivered to them wrapped in a neat little package as films “they” will like. Within the ranks of Hollywood, people like Ben Affleck beat the drum for great filmmaking. Sloppy, imperfect, ambitious, balls-out filmmaking isn’t often seen anymore, or supported anymore, because there are too many film critics who review films like they are grand openings for the latest fast food joint. What great movie made in the 1970s would even pass muster today? Not many. They would be killed either by social justice problematics or else the critics would slice and dice them for being not perfect enough.
Still, the rare filmmakers do it anyway, god bless them, despite what hell may come. Sure, some have opted out but those who are left are a dying breed. The Cary Fukunagas of Hollywood barely exist because they’re either bought off by Big Hollywood franchisetainment or else they have exiled themselves to television where things are a lot safer, more daring, groundbreaking even. Perhaps that’s why someone at Netflix had the bright idea to bring Beasts of No Nation into the fold. No studio would touch it. Most critics seem to be missing the point. Yet here is Netflix, standing proudly behind it, daring to change the way movies are rolled out in Hollywood. They’re the Jay Gatsby on West Egg hoping to be counted as legit. David Fincher’s House of Cards launched Netflix as a legit television production house and completely changed the game. Now it’s nothing to think of Amazon or any VOD platform creating original content viable for the Emmy race. But that’s TV. This is film. This is the Oscars.
Whether Beasts of No Nation manages a nomination or not, its mere presence as a contender threatens convention. What will happen if they do break through? What will happen if voters legitimize Netflix? Will it make the old-guard studios start to sweat? If it does, they will back slowly away from the potential for a variety of new pathways into the Oscars. It would be beneficial for the studios to block Netflix the same way they blocked IFC films with Boyhood or CBS Film with Inside Llewyn Davis. They are fighting for their own dominance and survival, after all because that’s what humans do.
Still, the Oscars should pay attention to what Netflix is offering here with Beasts of No Nation. They are offering films the chance to be as recklessly daring as television has become now that HBO kicked down the door and showed up the major networks. If the studios are too afraid to take the kind of chances Netflix is taking with Beasts of No Nation, maybe the Oscars should step up and open that door. Maybe they are afraid for their own future, even if they all still feed into and off of the studio system. Maybe they want to show that they are open to diverse casting projects. Maybe they want to help open up an industry that is turning itself over to the unbearable repetition of the dumbed down, teched up franchise. Maybe. Maybe not.
The final story is not yet told. What will Netflix viewers make of something that is becoming much much bigger than the medium that will eventually house it? Will they tick off their little star rating then move on to the Walking Dead or American Horror Story? But if Hollywood isn’t going to support movies like Beasts of No Nation, then perhaps it will be up to Netflix to help bridge the gap and help save the major studios from themselves.