Movie Review: ‘Beasts of No Nation’
Plot: When civil war approaches a small West African village, many of the townspeople are forced to flee to the capital for sanctuary. Among those is the family of a adolescent boy named Agu (Abraham Atta). While Agu’s mother, sister, and baby brother flee, Agu and his father and brother are forced to stay behind. Before long the army attacks the village, summarily executing everyone in town including Agu’s father and brother. Fortunately Agu escapes, only to be rescued by the Native Defense Force, a rebel group who opposes the army and the reigning government. Leading them is the Commandant (Idris Elba) who quickly recruits Agu into his junta. Before long Agu is exposed to the horrors of war and the toll it takes on one’s soul.
Review: “Agu, remember whatever happens, God is testing us.”
This is a line that is uttered by Agu’s father early on in Beasts of no Nation, the brilliant, compelling, and chilling third feature film from Cary Fukunaga. It’s a line that sets the tone for the entire movie, as the film is in fact a test from God; a test for the audience to visually endure and a test for the main character Agu.
Previous films such as Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland have touched on the devastation of juntas in Africa before, but as good as those films were, they pale in comparison to Beasts of no Nation. Fukunaga’s film captivates as a visceral account of one youth’s journey from happy adolescent, to refugee, to soldier, to broken child. It’s also a study in despotism. Elba’s Commandant uses his charisma and exploits young boys’ pain to bend them to his will. Agu is just one of a thousand faceless children in war-torn Africa with the same story. It’s easy for Elba to take Agu’s pain and have it serve his own ends. When the Commandant first meets Agu he’s grief-stricken and alone. Rather than comfort him, Elba offers Atta’s character a way to obtain revenge.
I’ve always been a fan of Elba, but I think Beasts of no Nation catapults the English actor into elite status. Elba’s Commandant is a monster, however he’s a very nuanced monster. There’s so many layers to the Commandant. At times he acts fatherly and kind to Agu and the other boys in his charge. Yet he psychologically manipulates them, at one moment firing them up with reminders of what the army has done to their families and in the next moment telling them of the women and money they will see in the capital. However, he also sexually abuses these same boys (including Agu) and initiates their addiction to drugs. Ostensibly he gives the boys something to fight for now that they’ve lost everything. The idea of gaining purpose in a sea of purposelessness appeals universally to these boys. Yet it’s a ruse, a facade that ultimately means nothing. Despite being a monster, at times Elba’s character creates empathy. There’s a scene in particular where the Commandant is denied the position of General and basically gets his battalion taken away. You feel for the Commandant because what is he if not a soldier? Yet that quickly changes when you see what he does to get his battalion back. Idris Elba’s performance is nothing short of a revelation.
Yet as good as Elba is in this film, Atta is his equal. I’m dumbfounded that a fifteen year old actor with little acting experience can hold his own with a forty-three year old actor. The pathos and the gravitas that Atta expounds cannot be overstated. Atta does things with a glance or a quietly understated line that actors three times his age can’t do. There are two scenes in particular, one where he loses a close friend and one where he speaks to a child psychologist towards the end of the movie that just ripped my heart out. With luck, Atta has a long and illustrious career ahead of him.
Ditto Cary Fukunaga. Although he’s best known for directing the entire first season of True Detective, his career trajectory is about to go at a 90 degree angle. It KILLS me that this guy is not going to do the big screen IT adaptation. Fukunaga weaves a narrative that while devastating, also shines a light on one of the most ignored atrocities in the first world. There’s a reason that the Commandant has no name, that we’re never told the name of the African village (or for that matter the country) Agu hails from, that we never even know exactly what the NDF is fighting for or why the government is corrupt in the first place. It doesn’t matter. The facelessness IS the point. The juntas, the corruption, the boys who are used up and discarded like detritus–they are as common as Big Red gum at the checkout line. The fact that these circumstances are common in Africa is the real tragedy. Fukunaga wipes the audience’s face in it. You cannot turn away from these horrors.
It’s a tired cliché, but Beasts of No Nation is truly a labor of love for Fukunaga. He worked on the script for seven years, based off the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala. Not only did he write, direct, and produce this film, Fukunaga did something virtually unheard of: he orchestrated the cinematography for Beasts of No Nation. And it’s just as impeccable and immaculate as the writing and directing. His camerawork brings the towns and jungles of Ghana to vibrant life. This is Fukunaga’s vision and film through and through. I’m surprised he didn’t do the score, but veteran Dan Romer does a fantastic job in his own right.
Although, this film was distributed by Netflix I thank God it at least screened in some theaters which keeps it eligible for the Oscars. And believe me this film is going to get tons of them. I’d be shocked if Elba doesn’t get his first Best Actor nomination and if Atta doesn’t get a Best Supporting Actor nomination. (Although to be fair he was in the movie enough that he could be nominated in the Best Actor category.) Cary Fukunaga may also be the first person ever to be nominated for Direction, Screenplay, and Cinematography in the same year.
However, I’m sure Fukunaga didn’t make this film expecting accolades. That’s incidental. He had a singular vision for this movie and brought it into existence his way and on his terms. And like Woodrow Call says in Lonesome Dove, it’s, “A Hell of a vision.”
My rating: 10/10
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