by Philip Price
It's difficult to summon exactly how to feel about a film like “Beasts of No Nation.” It is somewhere in the realm of “12 Years a Slave” in that it's impossible not to acknowledge the craft and effectiveness of what it achieves, but is without a doubt something I and I presume many others would not care to experience again. What I find to be most endearing about director Cary Fukunaga's third feature directorial effort is that of its pacing. Having not read Uzodinma Iweala's novel on which the film is based it's hard to tell how much Fukunaga's adaptation stays true to the original narrative, but the story he has delivered feels so whole and so effortlessly consecutive that there is no need to harp on this detail. If you know what you're getting yourself into, you know that “Beasts of No Nation” is going to be a devastating watch. It is a film about child soldiers in Africa and is so distant from what those of us settling down on our couches to watch the film on Netflix are accustomed to that it can't help but be somewhat shocking. Nothing we see in the film though, no matter how gruesome, is done purely for shock value. Rather, Fukunaga's highly stylistic eye is trained to capture not the arc of violence, but that of a single young boy who comes from a rather innocent and somewhat naive background to that of someone robbed of their childhood only to have it replaced with the inner-conflict of having to kill, to commit sins against the God they worship and question continuously whether or not they are making the right choices for their particular set of circumstances. There is no doubt this tragic story is a tough watch, but by the time we are brought around to the conclusion of the character arc Fukunaga intends to expose it can't help but feel like a necessary one to experience.
“Beasts of No Nation” follows the journey of a young boy, Agu (Abraham Attah), who is forced to join a group of soldiers in an unnamed West African country. Agu's childhood has been brutally shattered by the war raging through his country as he sees his father and older brother murdered in front of him while his mother and younger siblings have been jettisoned out of this region that they once called home. Upon escaping his own execution, Agu finds himself among the ranks of an intimidating Commandant (Idris Elba) who enlists soldiers of all ages and convinces Agu to join them so as to avenge his family and seek revenge on those that killed them. Naturally, this Commandant is a charismatic figure that tends to have darker motives beneath his charming surface. Elba exudes this presence with his appealing stature and frame while consistently playing to the trust factor many of his soldiers guard with their lives. He reassures them, lets them know he believes in them and makes promises that pull them in closer, painting his victims as all the more innocent and himself as being all the more villainous. While Agu fears his commander and many of the men around him, the focus on Agu's conscious is most relevant as Fukunaga likes to remind us that it's this preciousness that is the real victim. Agu is torn between the conflicting revulsion and fascination that comes with the actions he and his company are instructed to carry out. “Beasts of No Nation” depicts the inner-workings of war in a land most viewers will not be familiar with while having the nerve to never shy away from the explicit, visceral detail that makes up the complicated and difficult picture of a child soldier.
While “Beasts of No Nation” will likely come to be known largely as the first original film from Netflix, it should not be discounted as less of a film for being experienced more commonly on the small screen than that of a theater screen. While I myself watched the film through the subscription video service I'm somewhat kicking myself for not catching the film on the big screen when I had the chance. Knowing the film would be premiering less than a month after returning from the Toronto International Film Festival where the film was screened multiple times I opted to see something else I might not get the chance to see in theaters or anytime soon instead. Given Fukunaga's eye for the luscious exteriors and vibrant colors that paint this stark tale in a juxtaposing light it is something of a visual treat I wish I'd seen unfold in the format it was meant to. To that effect, Fukunaga has enlisted the tone of a seventies war film where the grain of the greens can be felt. The framing, on the other hand, consistently feels particular in that it remains a very cinematic experience-as if we're watching the photos of a National Geographic come to life. The images are both beautiful in the way they are captured, but completely distressing for the message they're conveying. Distressing may be the best word to describe this experience as a whole. As if knowing his audience would reach a boiling point, a point where the viewer as well as the main character would take a step back and look at the mess of a situation we'd become entangled in, Fukunaga plants a sequence where he turns his colors up to an almost infrared level as if to correlate the inner frustrations of all involved. It is a beautifully rendered scene that assures us, the viewer, that the film is in tune with the emotions of who it's playing to while doing its duty of visually telling the story of Agu and what he's experiencing. Pairing this with the flawless pacing only makes the distress of the film all the more affecting.
In all honesty though, the movie could have been a found footage style documentary and would still stand to be as riveting as it is in its current form as long as the performances of Elba and Attah were captured in similar fashion. It is expected that the engaging Elba be absorbing in his performance of the Commandant that is reportedly based largely on members of the Civil Defense Forces that the actor and Fukunaga consulted during the pre-production phase of the film. It is expected that he bring a layered and complex performance to this man who let's what is essentially a small amount of power go to his head. What Elba also brings to the presence of this commander though is a mythic sense that is immediately tangible even if it's false. There is a legendary sense to the persona that Elba radiates on screen, making the submission of so many young soldiers understandable if not all the more disturbing. On the other end of the spectrum is Attah who conveys the proper amount of childlike wonder with the necessary measure of mischief to make Agu both endearing and genuine. It is through Attah's performance of this fractured child, who has to be both a singular presence and represent a whole nation of injustice, that Fukunaga is able to balance the brutality of the details of his story and still convey this arc in a rather elegant fashion. It is in Attah's performance that there is some type of humanity and it is through his perceived mentality that this story is made compelling rather than just a play by play of ugly incidents made worse by senseless carnage. This is more than evident in a scene where Agu is forced to kill for the first time. The single downfall of the film is that it doesn't include smaller yet highly wrought moments such as this that make the tragedy of the situation all the more real. Still, Fukunaga has crafted a mostly poignant picture that is worth seeing even if it's difficult to get through.