Director: Cary Fukunaga
Cast: Idris Elba, Abraham Attah and Ama K. Abebrese
Running Time: 136 minutes
Release Date: October 16th [Netflix]
After becoming the hottest of hot properties following the massive success that was the first season of True Detective, director Cary Fukunaga made yet another neck-snapping hand-break turn with his career step. While it shouldn’t be a surprise from the man who followed up Spanish-language border-drama Sin Nombre with a beautifully stifled Bronte-adaptation Jane Eyre, it is still attention-grabbing that he’s the first of Netflix’s home-grown movie slate, and more interesting yet, that Netflix have decided to put out this dour, virtually star-less, grimfully violent film as their call-to-arms, as it were.
In an unnamed African country, Agu (Abraham Attah) is a happy-go-lucky child living with his family, but any and all joy is soon ripped away from him – and us – never to return. As war arrives at Agu’s hometown, his mother and young sister are sent away, while he remains behind with the other men. In no time at all, his father and brother are killed in front of him, and he runs off into the jungle, crossing paths with a group of rebels, headed by their Commandant (Idris Elba). Seeing potential in his newfound recruit, the Commandant keeps Agu close-by, turning him from a naïve innocent into a blindly subservient personal bodyguard as the rebels make their way through the country, raping and pillaging and murdering anyone who gets in their way.
As a wannabe prestige picture, you can almost see the Netflix’s executives eyes turn into Oscar-shapes when they heard the pitch. “This could be our 12 Years A Slave,” you can practically hear someone yell, “but a thousand times more relevant, thanks to the ongoing wars in Africa and the generally, background awareness most people would have of the child soldiers recruited for these wars!” It’s difficult to level an accusation of cynicism at a project so worthy, but the release timing (hello, awards season!) and the rest of their upcoming slate (all of which are comedies, including FOUR Adam Sandler films), there is a constant background humming; it’s the sound of us being force-fed the movie’s importance.
As well as directing, Fukunaga also provided the script and served as his own director of photography, and while in the latter he maintains the level of sophisticated beauty we’ve come to expect from his projects, in the former he never truly excels. Once Agu joins the rebels, at about twenty minutes in, nothing you could really call “a plot point” occurs for another hour and a half. Fukunaga drip-feeds us our young protagonist’s slow descent into his own personal form of devil worship, and he is aptly supported by his two leads. Attah is fantastic as the corrupted innocence, made even more impressive by the fact that this is his first acting role, while Elba stands tall as one of the movie’s major support pillars, using his weaponised charm and intelligence as his primary modes of attack, wading into battle armed with nothing more than the support of his men.
Matching up a nasty air of violence and oppression against the beautifully dusty villages, sweaty jungles and (his fav!) long tracking shots, Fukunaga has gifted us something that is, as it turns out, important and worthy of discussion, while also being painfully bloated and a bit of a slog to endure. Filling your screen with great performances and pretty cinematography will only get you so far when all you’re doing is essentially making the same point over and over again for 137 minutes.