Beasts of No Nation
2015, NR, 137 min. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Starring Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, Ama K. Abebrese, Grace Nortey, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Francis Weddey.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 16, 2015
Writer, director, and cinematographer Cary Fukunaga hardly misses a horror in this immersive story about a child soldier in Africa. Adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s novel, the film is set in an unnamed country beset by perpetual war between government and rebel forces. Although the area’s politics remain purposefully sketchy, the atrocities experienced and perpetrated by these young warriors never are. Beasts of No Nation is bathed in inescapable immediacy – both a credit to the filmmaking on display and a knock against its ceaseless barrage. The atrocities against children begin to acquire an unwelcome redundancy in their relentlessness and threaten to inure the viewer.
The story is told from the perspective of young Agu (Attah, a nonprofessional making an impressive debut as he transitions from happy child to dead-eyed soldier). In the film’s opening sequences, we see Agu’s life before becoming an orphaned jungle warrior. A lovely opening sequence in which Agu and his friends try to sell a gutted TV box frame to anyone who’ll listen as “imagination TV” shows the boys acting out scenes from the other side of the frame. Agu’s village is a safe buffer zone, where he lives with his parents, older brother, baby sister, and senile grandfather. Then war comes to their doorstep. In the chaos, his mother and baby sister escape to the capital in a vehicle that has no room for the young boy, who stays behind with the men. Government forces arrive in advance of the rebels, and in a fatal misunderstanding shoot the villagers as spies, while Agu follows his father’s instructions to flee into the jungle. He runs until he comes upon the Commandant (Elba) and his children’s army of rebels. Bereft of home and family, Agu has little choice but to fall in with this drugged and murderous crew.
The Commandant (he has no other name) takes a liking to Agu, and becomes something of a surrogate parent, although by the time the psychological abuse extends to sexual abuse, the film’s litany of indecencies may push the bounds of sustainability. The boy’s hazing and first kill are shown in graphic detail, and Agu’s voiceover narration charts his descent. Elba’s charismatic magnetism is on full display here, veering between gentle paternalism and fearsome monstrosity.
Fukunaga’s camerawork (which transfixed many when he directed most of the first season of True Detective), is fluid and frequently expressionistic. Yet his storytelling reminds me more of his first feature film, Sin Nombre. That story about child refugees also exudes a gritty realism but is hindered by an over-reliance on melodramatic formulas that undercut the verisimilitude. If anything, Beasts of No Nation's horrors are overwhelming, and you may begin to feel like you’ve been in the jungle longer than Col. Kurtz. Incidentally, the film opens in limited theatrical release this week, simultaneous with its debut on Netflix, which is testing the waters with this release pattern, that has been rejected by most of the major theatre chains. See it on the screen if you can.