Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga.
Written by: Cary Joji Fukunaga based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala.
Starring: Abraham Attah (Agu), Idris Elba (Commandant), Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye (Strika), Ama K. Abebrese (Mother), Kobina Amissah-Sam (Father), Francis Weddey (Big Brother).
Beasts of No Nation is a harrowing cinematic experience, about how one African child is turned into a murderer with relative ease by a man who shows him just a little bit of fatherly affection. The film takes place in an unnamed African country and is about a conflict between the government and rebels who are fighting about something that is never really defined. This is all done on purpose of course – the film doesn’t want to get bogged down in specifics, to have a debate over who is right and who is wrong, because basically to the film it doesn’t matter. Its vagueness bothered me a little bit – for the most part, art that is universal is grounded in specifics – you first have to believe in those before you can make a larger point, and Beasts of No Nation avoids them entirely. Then again, the main story is so gripping – and does show specifics in other ways – like the way this child is turned into a murderer that perhaps I’m over-reacting.
The film stars Abraham Attah, in a terrific performance, as Agu a boy living in Africa with a teacher for a father, and a strong family unit. The last time there was a conflict, his family was on the winning side – and there are some hurt feelings in some of their neighbors – but mainly his is an idyllic life. This time though, as their village descends into chaos, they will not be so lucky. His mother, and sister, are able to flee – but Agu has to stay behind with his father and brother. Government soldiers show up, and line all the men up – including Agu – and ask an old local woman – one of those bitter at his family – if she knows them, and she says they’re rebels. The soldiers start ruthlessly killing the men – and this is when Agu takes off, on a terrifying run into the jungle. Eventually, he will come across another group – one made up of soldiers his same age and not much older – and led by The Commandant (Idris Elba). The Commandant takes Agu under his wing – gives him a chance to get revenge on those who killed his family. He also seems charming, likable, smart and well-spoken – at first, Agu looks at him as combination father/big brother – two people he just saw slaughtered before his eyes. It does not take too much prodding to turn Agu into a killer – although unlike some of the other child soldiers, he does retain at least some of his morality.
Beasts of No Nation is a violent film – as it pretty much has to be – but perhaps it is a touch too violent. Screenwriter-director Cary Joji Fukunaga is extremely talented – he showed that in his first two films, Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre, as well as in season 1 of True Detective, where his expert direction helped to overcome some of the writings rough patches (the two lead performances helped as well), and he does a magnificent job here as well in many sequences. In terms of the violence, the film is more effective the less it shows – when it does get really violent – like the scene of the first Agu participates in, or in a scene where Agu and some of friends go into a house and the others start to rape a woman (Agu stops that – in the bloodiest way possible) there is a little too much bloodlust for my tastes – the camera lingers for too long, soaking in all the blood, and not in a way calibrated to horrify the audience. It doesn’t help that aside from Agu and The Commandant, none of the other characters are given any sort of depth – so we are basically watching characters we don’t know slaughtering other characters we don’t know.
What the movie gets right – brilliantly so – is in the relationship between Agu and The Commandant. We see The Commandant through Agu’s eyes for the whole movie, and it’s fascinating to watch how Agu’s perception of him changes, and how Elba’s performance takes on more and more depth. At first, it’s hard not to see him as the cool father figure/older brother – he has control over all of these men, he gives them all guns, and they are fearless in battle, killing their enemies. He’s nice to Agu when no one else is, and wins him over. Through the course of the movie however, Agu’s perception of him changes – first in a scene where The Commandant does something to Agu he is not anticipating, after turning on his charm even more (this scene – and it’s immediate aftermath, where Agu is comforted by another of child soldiers, who knows precisely what happened is an example of how Beasts of No Nation is more effective when it shows less) – and finally in the last act of the movie, where the mask of The Commandant’s power slips – and Agu sees how this man he thought was all powerful is anything but – the powerful man revealed as rather pathetic.
I do wish that Beasts of No Nation had something a little larger to show about Africa than the film ultimately does. One of the things that is fascinating is that whenever Americans make a film about Africa is either a colorful travelogue for white people, or about the cruelty of the Africans themselves – sometimes including a white savior, sometimes not – yet when I see African films, they are often more cheerful and alive – showing a broader specter of African culture than American filmmakers seem interested in. Beasts of No Nation is a very good film – it is expertly crafted by Fukunaga (the director more so than the writer) and does feature two excellent performances. I just wish it cast its net a little bit wider than it does.