Considering that Netflix is mostly used for binge-watching and chilling, it might seem a strange home for an intense movie about child soldiers in West Africa. And yet the weekend Netflix debuted the movie on its site, it racked up 3 million distinct views. So while it may have only grossed $51,003 at the box office that weekend, Netflix’s bid at prestige has to be viewed as a success.
It helps that the movie is an unprecedented masterpiece. This isn’t the first time Cary Fukunaga has written and directed a foreign-language movie about children growing up through intense circumstances. Sin Nombre, a hit at Sundance in 2009, followed a Honduran girl and a Mexican boy trying to escape into the United States. That one was a well-received little indie. Key word: little. Beasts of No Nation is a high-profile foray by the streaming giant into the world of prestige film. Fukunaga’s stakes are a decidedly higher this time around.
But where the stakes are higher with Beasts, Fukunaga has met them with the film’s quality. Not that Sin Nombre was bad; it’s an excitingly emotional movie, but it feels small in the way you might expect from a movie designated as “indie”. Beasts is a sweeping epic, following young Agu (Abraham Attah) from an idyllic life before a rebel attack on his village through his escape from the rebels to his indoctrination as a child soldier under the tutelage of the enigmatic man Agu knows only as Commandant (Idris Elba). The platoon of child soldiers Agu falls into commit some horrific acts, and you get a sense of the inevitability of their doom. The instability of the government has thrown them into a situation entirely out of their control, and they’re taught to do some truly horrendous things to helpless people. The movie can be a bit hard to watch at times as a result.
Even so, Fukunaga’s camera remains wholly empathetic. There are many scenes built like the famous tracking shots in Children of Men, depicting the gradual escalation of the action until the level of the chaos surrounding the characters settles in and they become numb to it. The difference between Fukunaga’s style and Alfonso Cuarón’s in Children is that Fukunaga’s camera tracks one character through the entire shot where Cuarón’s would have tracked the action. The sweeping feeling of being caught up in the thick of things remains, but the focus on one character (usually Agu) fosters a unique empathy. That combination of epicness and empathy escalates Beasts into an extraordinary elevation of excellence.
And yet as prestigious as Beasts of No Nation is supposed to be based on its quality and Netflix’s ad campaign, the conversation surrounding it appears pretty quiet. There’s not much awards buzz, and the media hasn’t covered it past the week of its release. But don’t get it twisted. Just because Beasts of No Nation hasn’t generated the kind of conversation usually reserved for awards movies doesn’t mean that Netflix will consider it a failure. On the contrary, the goal for Beasts was never a Best Picture Oscar or for it to be a zeitgeist hit. No, Beasts is simply part of a grander plan to add more unique content to their library.
Netflix has always been trying to be the next HBO, albeit with a different methodology of delivery. When HBO Go launched early this year, it was a platform similar to Netflix in form that instantly had its own unique content from HBO’s years and years of creative production- relevant documentaries, prestige movies, iconic shows. In other words, everything Netflix has been trying to build the past few years. They started with instantly iconic shows like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. Last year they began branching into game-changing documentaries with the DiCaprio-produced Virunga, and they continued that process this year with the Nina Simone doc What Happened, Miss Simone? and the Ukraine unrest film Winter on Fire. Now, with Beasts of No Nation, they’re aiming for prestige film.
It’s hard to imagine Beasts of No Nation being made or distributed by any major studio. A story about child soldiers on a continent that’s historically misunderstood in cinema would have been a hard sell. Netflix spent so much money on it (around $12 million) because they weren’t trying to sell it. Beasts made very little at the box office, but those 3 million views matter. It may be hard to monetize views at this point, but 3 million is probably not a number they ever would have gotten had they only released the movie in theatres. Netflix is well aware that having Beasts in its library among all its other movies and shows from other prestigious talents will be valuable in the long run. The more essential Netflix’s library as a whole becomes, the more money they’re going to make on subscriptions.
This may seem inconsequential to you personally, but it’s this kind of forward-thinking business model that will continue to allow great artists like Cary Fukunaga to make the content on which you rely for bingeing and chilling. Of course, this is the same business model that is about to beget four Adam Sandler movies, the first of which appears to be filled with racist Native American jokes, so let’s not praise Netflix too much. But the kind of creative control Netflix has appeared to be willing to give Sandler is a positive trend for their deals with Paul Reubens (a new Pee-Wee movie!), the Duplass brothers (low-budget indies!), and kung-fu movie master Yuen Woo-Ping (a sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon!).
HBO has proven giving creative control to artists produces great art, but they’ve also shown that it can produce Season 2 of True Detective. Netflix will have their TD Season 2 (probably in the Sandler movies, though expectations are way lower for those than TD2 so it wouldn’t be a direct comparison). For now, they can be proud of Beasts of No Nation, both for how great a movie it is right now and for what it means for their future.