Review: ‘Beasts of No Nation’ an urgent story of war

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

“Beasts of No Nation” plunges viewers into war-torn Africa where there is seemingly no escape from madness and brutality. What hope is there when all you know, all you’re surrounded by, is violence?

Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who helmed the masterful first season of HBO’s “True Detective,” “Beasts of No Nation” has fire in its belly, urgency in its delivery and greatness in its reach — even if it never quite achieves the latter. It’s a good, not great, portrait of innocence that never stood a chance.

Newcomer Abraham Attah is Agu, a child living in an unnamed West African country who is ripped from his family and forced to join a squadron of child rebel soldiers. They’re led by a man known only as Commandant (Idris Elba in a frightening, charismatic performance), who creates a twisted family dynamic out of his child army.

Fukunaga, who adapted the screenplay from Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel, shoots “Beasts” with an on-the-ground, real-time immediacy that feels disarmingly real. Yet the story doesn’t overturn any new stones; it often feels like a “60 Minutes” piece that you’ve seen before and lacks the drama that’s not already attached to its real-world context.

“Beasts of No Nation” is being released simultaneously on Netflix and in theaters, and is the streaming company’s first foray into big-time prestige filmmaking. It’s quite a start, but its scope and lush visuals beg to be seen on the big screen rather than at home. Home delivery is the model and it may well be the future, but Netflix and Fukukaga made an argument for the importance of going to the theater.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

GRADE: B

Not rated

Running time: 137 minutes