Film: Beasts of No Nation
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Primary Cast: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, Ama K Abebrese, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Emmanuel Affadzi
US Release Date: 16 October 2015
Beasts of No Nation
Based on the Uzodinma Iweala novel of the same name, Beasts of No Nation was released both on Netflix and in some theaters on October 16th. Unhappy with Netflix’s online release of the film, AMC, Carmike Cinemas, Cinemark, and Regal Entertainment are all boycotting the film. Luckily for viewers, a 1-month subscription to Netflix costs less than a movie ticket.
Agu (Attah) is a young boy who lives with his family in West Africa. Their country is torn by civil war, but they live in a buffer zone that is relatively safe—for a time. Inevitably, war finds its way to their village. Agu’s mother (Abebrese) and sister flee with the other refugees, but Agu is left behind.
Soon enough, Agu’s father (Amissah-Sam), his brother (Affadzi), and his grandfather are all dead. Agu escapes the village by running into the surrounding bush, where he is soon discovered by a group of rebel soldiers. The soldiers—many of whom are children and teens—are led by a man known simply as “the Commandant” (Elba). Looking down at the scrawny Agu, the Commandant declares that “a boy is a dangerous thing.” He also tells Agu that he can help him avenge the deaths of his family members.
As Agu sees it, joining the soldiers is the only way that he will ever have a chance of reuniting with this mother and sister, and he is soon initiated into the Commandant’s battalion of the Native Defense Force.
In addition to being Netflix’s first original fictional film, Beasts of No Nation is also a powerfully acted and beautifully shot piece of cinema. Shot, written, and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, True Detective Season 1), the film does a good job of portraying the horrors of war without ever losing sight of its protagonist’s youth and humanity. Though some fault it for being too narrowly focused, Beasts of No Nation is not and never claims to be a documentary; above all, this gut-wrenching drama is a character-study, and it’s a damn good one too.
It would be ridiculous to review Beasts of No Nation without addressing just how good its two lead performances are. As the Commandant, Elba is just as magnetic as he is repulsive, which is crucial both to Agu’s psychology and to the film’s story more generally. When we first meet him, the Commandant is a sort of father figure; as potentially threatening as he might be, one still has the urge to please him and to gain his approval. As the film continues, this image unravels. The Commandant appears more obviously abusive and increasingly fallible the longer one looks at him, but Elba never fully sheds his coolness and charisma. This is important because, at the end of the day, the Commandant is as much a monster at the beginning of the film as he is at the end; he doesn’t really change—Agu just learns to see him more clearly.
As for Agu himself, he is played by the incredibly talented newcomer Abraham Attah. The young Ghanaian demonstrates a level emotional maturity that would be impressive from someone three times his age (and with much more experience). His performance is powerful, dazzling, and heartbreaking. As Agu, Attah manages to simultaneously convey the innocence of childhood, the numbness of trauma, and the exhausted desperation of the soldier; and he does so so effortlessly that it’s impossible not to marvel at his skill. Only time will tell if Attah will continue to act, but the selfish side of me certainly hopes that he does.
As Beasts of No Nation’s performances work to increase the film’s emotional weight, its visuals work to transport viewers deeper into the nightmare of war. There is something slightly otherworldly about the way that the film is shot. In fact, at times, it almost reminds me of the absolute fever dream that is Valhalla Rising. Some of Agu’s experiences are so horrible, that it’s impossible to imagine how he could possibly process them as reality—perhaps Fukunaga’s use of vibrant colors and almost hallucinatory camerawork is somehow meant to make the nightmarish (and inherently traumatic) nature of war and of life as a child solider more vivid. Either way, it adds a sense of strangeness and sublimity to the film that most certainly enhances the viewing experience. Fans of Fukunaga’s work on True Detective will also be happy to know that Beasts of No Nation features some rather intense long takes as well.
Beasts of No Nation is heavy, complicated, nuanced, and devastating. Fukunaga does not make the mistake of flattening his characters into full-blown saints or monsters—while some are clearly more despicable than others, they all remain multi-faceted and human for the most part. The horrors of war are not enacted by monsters, they are enacted by men (and boys), and Beasts of No Nation does not lose sight of this fact. As harrowing and as visceral as Beasts of No Nation is, Fukunaga also shows a welcome degree of restraint. He does not seek to shock viewers with graphic images; instead, he lets his actors, his characters, and his story do the heavy lifting, and the film is better for it.
The film’s approach to depicting war may not be incredibly original, but given how strong the rest of the film is, that isn’t much of an issue; Agu is the subject of the film, and his story is captivating. A number of critics have also criticized Beasts of No Nation for not providing viewers with enough fact-based specificity concerning the war and the politics that cause Agu to become a child soldier in the first place. However, I do not see this aspect of the film as a weakness at all. Knowing all the details of who started the war and why won’t help Agu or bring his family back, so why should viewers worry about them while they are watching the film? Moreover, by keeping certain details deliberately vague, Fukunaga increases the film’s potential applications while also encouraging viewers to focus more closely on Agu himself.
Beasts of No Nation is about many things—indoctrination, manipulation, trauma, and war all among them—but it does not set out to provide a full or clear picture of civil war in Africa. It does not try to give answers to all that Agu must deal with either. To do so would take much longer than 2 hours and would make for a very different film. To fault Beasts of No Nation for not being informative enough seems pointless, especially when it doesn’t try to be informative at all. If viewers of the film want to learn more about the plight of child soldiers after viewing the film, then they can seek that information out for themselves, but Beasts of No Nation should not be held responsible for not doing enough to dispel their ignorance.
One thing about the film that actually is a problem—albeit a small one—is Dan Romer’s score, which is ambient and electronic in a way that does not fit the atmosphere of the film at all.
Fukunaga is one of today’s most exciting emerging directors, and Beasts of No Nation makes it clear why. Beasts of No Nation is not perfect or easy to watch, but it is a powerful, memorable, and well-crafted film that deserves to be seen. In addition to incredible lead performances, Fukunaga’s latest also boasts a complex story and beautiful camera work. It may not give viewers a full picture of the reality of war in West Africa, but it doesn’t need to. Instead, Beasts of No Nation explores the paper-thin barrier between innocence and evil, the horrors of war, and the psychology of its individual characters, and it does so with more than enough intelligence and sensitivity to make for memorable viewing.
Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading! If you have a Netflix subscription or live near a theater that is actually showing Beasts of No Nation, then I’d definitely encourage you to watch it. I’d also love to hear what you think about it if you do!