Beasts of no theater

Beasts of No Nation features another ho-hum, lights-the-screen-up-every-time-he’s-on-it performance from Idris Elba. If he isn’t the next Bond, I’m going to riot. Photos courtesy Bleeker Street.

It’s Halloween weekend. There’s nothing new releasing, as studios are afraid of competition during their highest-leverage time slots — and no, Bradley Cooper and Sandra Bullock Oscarbating don’t count. With no reason to go to a theater, you sit at home with your bag of candy and… what’s this? A Netflix original movie?

Maybe they could have cut their teeth with something a little less grim. Like, a documentary on how to make your own coffin lining, for instance.

Beasts of No Nation follows Agu (Abraham Attah), a 10-year old living in an unnamed West African country mired in a brutal, three-way civil war. Agu lives in a safe zone at the start of the film, but the army soon rolls through. His mother is shipped further behind the lines, but his father and brother are killed and he only survives by escaping into the wilderness. There, he is found by a Native Defense Force battalion that uses child soldiers. The battalion commandant (Idris Elba) singles Agu out as a potential leader and takes him under his wing, walking him through the horrors of war.

The film is beautifully shot, acted and edited, but it was pitched to me as an ethically complex imagining of what it’s like to be a child soldier, so I’ll always be a little disappointed in it. There’s nothing complex about the film’s morality, and as Agu becomes more and more involved in the battalion it basically turns into Bad Things Happen: The Movie. 

That’s not to say it’s ineffective. Beasts of No Nation remains an epic of breathtaking camerawork and visuals. From the shot of Agu descending into the river of blood to the moment the wilderness goes pink in the violent mesh of several battles as the NDF advances, it’s always interesting to look at and all has a gut-wrenching effect, even if that effect becomes redundant at a certain point. One of the most consistent elements is its honest, unsettling depiction of guns as weapons that can turn a small child into a killing machine. There is no action in this movie, only violence. Agu points and clicks, and human beings become nothing a handful at a time.

The entire movie plays out in a delirious, three-minute shot starting around 1:18:40. Agu’s transformation is complete. He overturns furniture for no apparent reason, he screams “fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” while firing despite appearing not to know what it means. In a particularly disturbing element, another soldier screams about a captured woman, “I want to rape her! I want to rape her!” a stark contrast from American rape culture in which an attacker won’t necessarily acknowledge what he’s doing is wrong.

Despite lost innocence being the film’s primary consequence for its protagonist, there’s some question as to whether Agu was all that innocent. He already knows about sex and violence at the film’s start, and while he hadn’t been exposed to either, he seems to at least be aware of what’s going on when it’s going on. What happens to him is indisputably horrible, but may not be as shocking from his perspective as the film suggests.

Of course, the most interesting thing about Beasts of No Nation is its release format. It doesn’t really matter if a movie is bad or good when it’s already paid for an a click away.

The film was initially released on the festival circuit, winning the Marcello Mastroianni Award for emerging actors at the Venice Film Festival in September. Netflix bought the international distribution rights, and released it on its streaming service simultaneously with its theatrical release Oct. 16, which is already an extremely small window between festival acquisition and release. Saying this violated theaters’ 90-day exclusivity rights on new releases, several major theater chains — Cinemark, AMC, Regal and Carmike — boycotted the film, limiting it to 31 theaters and killing its ability to make a traditional profit. Two weeks later, the movie is sitting at less than $100,000 — because why would anyone see it in theaters?

The importance of this film has nothing to do with its quality. As evidenced by Netflix’s signing to distribute the next four Adam Sandler movies, quality is completely irrelevant. Performance isn’t even relevant — Netflix has said it’s happy with Beasts of No Nation’s viewership numbers, and that’s probably the most detail we’re ever going to get. It doesn’t matter. The movie is already paid for from the streaming service’s perspective, as well. If no one watched it, there would be no repercussions. If no one liked it, there would be no repercussions.

This film could very well mark the beginning of the end for theaters as we know them, and it could have done it if it were an Adam Sandler movie.

It’s worth noting that this is not the only movie of the past few weeks to violate the 90 day rule. Paramount’s Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension and Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse will both go to VOD a few weeks after falling below a certain number of theaters instead of after a certain number of days on the condition that they’ll split the VOD profits within that 90 day period with participating theater chains. However, the only major theater chain to agree to this was AMC, limiting the films to just 1,656 and 1,509 screens, respectively, meaning they’ll fall to the threshold number of theaters faster, meaning Paramount will spend more time splitting its VOD profits with theaters, which isn’t exactly what the company had in mind. Despite a large window of the films’ runs being all profit from AMC’s perspective, this, too, could be a threat to the theater system.

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Start moshes at parties you weren’t invited to and demand encores from bands you do not know. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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