In today’s increasingly fractured media landscape, acquiring great content is more important than ever. DIY distribution companies are popping up like weeds, and film festivals crawl all over each other like roaches fighting for exclusive premieres. And if people like you don’t position a film properly at the outset, it’s almost guaranteed to be a bust. You only get one chance to launch a film, no matter how big or small the budget. So choosing a Netflix release – rather than a traditional theatrical release – for Beasts of No Nation was certainly a bold move. It made the industry stand up and take notice. The question is, will the public follow, too?
It’s not an easy sell. Idris Elba certainly has his fans, but the film otherwise boasts a cast of mostly first-time African actors. The difficult subject matter of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel, from which the film is adapted, probably didn’t line up any buyers, either. But enough people saw potential in the brutal story of child soldiers in Ghana that the film was financed and completed.
Then along comes Netflix to scoop up the rights before anyone else even had a chance. I couldn’t help but wonder: was going straight to streaming a vote of confidence in the film—or a cop out ? A bit of both, I can finally say after seeing the film. And probably the right play.
As a consumer (especially one who’s house-bound with two kids), I selfishly applaud the move. The fact that Cary Joji Fukanaga’s follow up film after True Detective didn’t make the Cannes cut certainly didn’t dampen my expectations (especially since the whiff of being an “original Netflix film” may have been too odorous for those upturned French noses), and it was certainly one of the films I hoped to see at the Toronto International Film Festival. But that pending release date, a month later, which would be beamed straight to my home, pushed the film lower on my list of priorities. Which means that I saw the film, like most people, only after it was released to the public. And that’s when the whole distribution strategy started to make sense.
First, the film has a fairly difficult running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes, which is fine for superheroes and sequels, but not so much for films focused on child murder and rape. Though to scare people off with the film’s more extreme elements would be doing it a serious disservice. After all, Fukanaga’s cinematography (yeah, he did that, too, on top of writing and producing the film) has a poetic ease that never aims to shock, even in its most brutal machete-wielding moments. The performances are nicely underplayed, and Elba comes to the role of the Commandant with a certain je ne sais quoi that doesn’t quite demonize his reprehensible character. He treats the brutal violence around him as an avoidable consequence of refusing to follow his rules.
While the film may not have many direct comparisons, it’s probably most easily described as a cross between The Last King of Scotland and War Witch—neither of which were exactly box-office champions, but both of which made an impact come Oscar season.
In some ways, Beasts of No Nation is destined to suffer a similar fate: it will either be heralded by critics, awards juries, and audiences who are able to see it more easily than the other buzzed-about end-of-year art films, or it will be consciously scrolled over in favour of a hundred other choices that are a little easier for the public to digest.
For your sake, I hope they press play.