Editor’s Note: Beasts of No Nation was released on Netflix on October 16, 2015.
Childhoods forged in war, rather than peace. Actions predicated on survival, rather than choice. These are the assumptions seen in many films about those who are displaced or consumed by violence, particularly those in West Africa. In Beasts of No Nation, Cary Fukunaga’s third feature film, the specific geography is stripped away, but many of the constants stay the same: a multitude of power-hungry leaders vying for power, the displacement of thousands upon millions of individuals, and most prominently, the use of child soldiers. But what Fukunaga pulls off here in his first foray into film since the success of his first-season direction of HBO’s True Detective is quite compelling, if not completely innovative.
In eschewing any larger context (which is by no means a detrimental decision), we see the violence which consumes a larger and larger portion of Agu’s consciousness, to the point that it becomes virtually unshakable.
Agu (Abraham Attah) is a young boy living in a West African village, passing his days the way most boys his age do: playing football, carrying out chores for his family, and finding any other creative way to pass the time (such as a charming gag he and his friends call “imagination TV” with the shell of a gutted tube television). He is not in school because of the war being carried out nearby, and once that violence spills over into their land, the boy is quickly separated from his family. After a series of heart wrenching and uncontrollable events, Agu ends up under the tutelage (and control) of the Commandant (Idris Elba), a charismatic and harsh leader of a battalion of rebels, comprised mainly of children and teenagers, many of whom were “recruited” in the same way as Agu.
Beasts of No Nation, despite a robust runtime, doesn’t spend any spare time setting up Agu’s journey to joining with the rebel forces, and the majority of the film trots solely down this thread. Without any other outside stories progressing (we see almost the entire film through Agu’s perspective), there isn’t much use for cross-cutting, and the action is edited in a far less episodic fashion than many other movies of this kind. As such, the film is not about global policy or the morality of the greater conflict, but rather about war itself. In eschewing any larger context (which is by no means a detrimental decision), we see the violence which consumes a larger and larger portion of Agu’s consciousness, to the point that it becomes virtually unshakable. While the transformation from innocence to child soldier portrayed in Blood Diamond (of the boy Dia, played by Kagiso Kuypers) is perhaps more cinematically rendered (with purposefully placed music and emotionally-wrought closeups on Dia, for example), the metamorphosis is much more organically captured here, and Agu’s progression into the violence is less a betrayal of his morality as it is his individualism. He becomes what he is surrounded by, with evil and cunning encouragement from a vile Commandant. A reflective voiceover by Agu lets us know that he is not a brainwashed and malevolent boy, rather he is surviving in the only way he knows how.
Each element of the film feels purposeful and tightly constructed, from the straightforward plotting to the action sequences which are not just coherent, but thrive in their overwhelming brutality.
Although Fukunaga has traditionally been known for his visual flair (owing to his vast filmography as a cinematographer), what stands out first and most prominently in Beasts of No Nation are the sounds that heighten the intensity of the story. From the first screen which features bouncy title credits, we hear the sound of children playing, laughing, and rapping, the verbal “before” to the terrifying sounds which will occur later on. After Agu takes a life for the first time, there’s a noticeable muting of the world around the boy, as if the loss of innocence and the adrenaline of the situation is literally seeping off the screen and onto our own sensibilities. Much later, as Agu waits for his commanders at a brothel, a noticeable ticking sound grows louder, literally counting down until the next explosion of violence which the young boy cannot thwart.
Each element of the film feels purposeful and tightly constructed, from the straightforward plotting to the action sequences which are not just coherent, but thrive in their overwhelming brutality. Even if there isn’t as much to grasp from Beasts of No Nation in the days after viewing, Fukunaga has assembled a visual diary of destruction and terror, a merciless look at the atrocities committed by those seeking power in an unstable world without an attempt to offset the horror. A lesser film would have tried to make the material more palatable, but Fukunaga refuses to compromise in his vision, and the movie is better for it.
Uncompromising and tightly constructed, Beasts of No Nation is a tough but not entirely innovative look at the high cost of war.