The opening shot in Beasts of No Nation, Cary Fukunaga's intense new war drama that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, is framed inside the hollowed-out husk of a television set. It's meant to highlight the youthful imagination and innocence of the film's lead character, a future child soldier named Agu, but given how the film is Netflix's first major film release, it can't help but be read as a prescient nod to an industry sea change. Increasingly, it doesn't matter what kind of screen you watch a movie on – as long as you're watching, that's good enough.
Fukunaga didn't intend to shoot the scene with that message, though. For the better part of a decade, the filmmaker was simply doing everything he could to get the harrowing story of Agu (Abraham Attah) and his sociopathic "commandant" (Idris Elba) into production, after acquiring rights to Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala's novel. Once he finally raised funds from a variety of producers, including Elba himself, Fukunaga headed into the jungles of Ghana without knowing Netflix would eventually become part of the film's groundbreaking distribution scheme.
"The deal was a huge relief, because the movie cost far more than we set out to spend," the director, 38, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "It was also far more than we imagined we'd get from any distributor, because this isn't a horror movie or a comedy or a film that you walk out of a theatre from reaffirmed and happy about yourself. It's a much more tasking film, and the fact that they risked more for this, it weighs heavily on my shoulders."
The exact risk for Netflix? That would be $12-million (U.S.), a huge amount for a company experimenting with feature film production. But Netflix is also in the midst of a spending spree – reports say it plans to spend $500-million (U.S.) on original content next year – and Beasts of No Nation seems like the perfect film to announce the company's grand ambitions.
In addition to its leading man, Elba, who turns in a captivating and terrifying performance as a would-be warlord in an unnamed African country, Fukunaga is on a hot streak. While he racked up acclaim for his work on 2009's Sin Nombre and 2011's Jane Eyre, the director also helmed all eight first-season episodes of HBO's True Detective. There, Fukunaga refined his sharp directorial eye and dark, but captivating, sensibility.
As a film, the beautiful and brutal Beasts of No Nation cements his reputation as one of the most bold filmmakers today. The film is difficult to watch, but impossible to turn away from: cinematic chaos, in the best possible sense.
Which is why Fukunaga insisted that the Netflix deal be a hybrid, of sorts. Instead of simply being available to stream for subscribers starting Oct. 16, the film will open at select U.S. cinemas, too – though not the major chains, which refuse to play anything that isn't theatre-exclusive (it will also not have a theatrical run in Canada). It's a bold strategy, and one that the industry will surely be watching as Netflix readies other in-house films such as Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous Six, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II: The Green Destiny and Brad Pitt's military satire War Machine – a varied mix, to be sure.
"It was important to me that this film live in cinemas," Fukunaga said. "If I had my druthers, of course it would be in cinemas around the world, but this is their [Netflix's] first foray into this, so it's a learning process." At TIFF, at least, it's also an example of the blurring lines between film and television. This year, the festival kicked off its inaugural Primetime program, which highlights auteur-driven TV series from across the globe. Story, rather than screen size, is now dictating our entertainment habits.
However audiences choose to see Beasts of No Nation, though, the film stands on its own as a remarkable work of art – a peek into the madness of war that brushes Apocalypse Now-like heights. (Fukunaga even suffered a few Francis Ford Coppola-like mishaps on set, with actors dropping in and out, Elba almost suffering a fatal fall, and the director himself enduring a case of malaria: "Malaria actually gave me a needed break, because I was going non-stop.")
See Beasts of No Nation on the screen of your choice, but do not dare miss it.