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Beasts of No Nation. 2015. Directed & Written by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala.
Starring Abraham Attah, Emmanuel Affadzi, Ricky Adelayitor, Andrew Adote, Vera Nyarkoah Antwi, Ama K. Abebrese, Idris Elba, Kurt Egyiawan, Kobina Amissah-Sam, and Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye. The Princess Grace Foundation/Red Crown Productions/Participant Media/Come What May Productions/Mammoth Entertainment/New Balloon.
Not Rated. 137 minutes.
Cary Fukunaga is destined to be a classic director of this generation. His first feature, Sin Nombre, embraced a similar danger to the terrifying things Beasts of No Nation explores, and right away that initial debut showed both his skill as a director, as well as his impressive abilities as a writer. From there, he directed an adaptation of Jane Eyre, and later graced HBO (and us) with one of the greatest debuts of any television series in True Detective alongside the acting talents of many including Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Now, Beasts of No Nation comes to us, amazingly as the first full-length feature from Netflix. And it is every bit what I expected.
Fukunaga – perhaps due to his father being born in an American camp where the Japanese were held after the Imperial Japan bombing of Pearl Harbour – has a soft spot, so to speak, for stories concerning children, the young, and generally anyone drawn into the internal conflicts of where they live. Even in True Detective, the less obvious of his work in this respect, there are many instances of people torn apart by the changes in New Orleans. Of course there’s Sin Nombre, which tracks two young people mired in the world of MS-13 and all its death, gang violence, drugs and more. In Beasts of No Nation we watch an even sadder tale, if that’s actually possible. Here we have the story of a young boy indoctrinated into a rebel army while trying to survive in the African wilderness, all after his father and others are unfairly executed by a group of military men. With the adapted screenplay by Fukunaga carrying tons of emotional weight and tons of questions about morality, how we view child soldiers and the nations which produce them, as well as the acting talent of young Abraham Attah and a powerhouse performance from Idris Elba, this is one gripping and ultimately brutal look at the desperate lives which some are forced to live in this world.
The debilitating wars of Africa come to us quickly, as the character of Agu (Abraham Attah) is thrust into it. His father and others are executed in his village, but Agu gets away. He runs into the wilderness and crawls through the forest, feeding off what he can, even getting sick at times because of not knowing which plants to eat or not. Struggling on his own, Agu comes across the NDF – a rising rebel army in the African jungle. Running this faction is a man known only as Commandant (Idris Elba). He takes the young boy under his wing almost immediately. But soon, we discover it is not of the goodness in his heart. He recruits child soldiers, those who must survive and will do anything for their chance to do so.
Not long after Commandant takes Agu in, the man asks the boy to initiate himself into the NDF. His task: kill a man with a machete. After he does, Agu is changed. Completely. To his core now he has become someone else. Though he knows murder is “the worst thing“, Agu is unable to turn and run.
For the time being, the boy must survive the war. By any means necessary.
For the entire film I found myself thinking: how is Abraham Attah this god damn good? Honestly, I love to experience a great performance from a child. There are a ton of amazing young actors out there who put in solid performances, which continually surprises me because especially when they’re very young it’s impressive they can even reach the depth needed to play certain characters. Such is the case with Attah here. There’s an aged quality to his eyes, to the way which he delivers lines: “Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.” Scene after scene, revving up in the last hour, Attah shows us the range he can attain. There are subtle moments, many of them, where the character of Agu and his pain comes through. Others, the youthful childishness still inside him is very evident. Yet all the time you’re aware that this young boy is acting circles around some of the adult performances in 2015. Attah truly blew me away with this role and I do hope he’ll continue to take roles as tough and as intense as this one down the road. He deserves to be a star.
Then there is Idris Elba. He has always interested me because of his quiet nature. Even in roles where he’s required to be loud and brash at times, there’s some sly quality about his performances which always stick out. From Stringer Bell to the titular character of the Luther series, I’m more often than not sucked into the world of a film or television series by his acting. As Commandant, in this film Elba brings out a monster of a man. There are several very excitable and near deafening moments where he shows Commandant as a vicious, brutal and inexplicable type of individual. We also find Elba capable of extremely low-key, subtle scenes which express how vile and morally corrupt Commandant is, without having to resort to anything too graphic or explicit; for instance, there is a dark and quiet scene between Commandant and Agu a little past the hour mark where we finally see how despicably sick the man is, and it doesn’t require anything overtly nasty, still getting its point across with force. Part of the impact isn’t only from Fukunaga’s cinematography and the editing from Pete Beaudreau/Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, it comes from the way Elba talks, the way his eyes move under the slight darkness, how he moves slow and steady. He is worthy of every bit of praise that comes his way.
A full-on 5-star experience. Some were supposedly disappointed with the ending, as if it weren’t dramatic or exciting enough. But why must it be either of those things? Beasts of No Nation is about the perpetual cycle of abuse, rape, violence and war which African countries are facing on a daily basis in certain areas. The ending only goes to show that while there are glimmers of hope now and then, the wars rage on, the children are forever thrust into a warring life from day one and it’s only luck which ones end up holding an Ak-47 with a machete, and which ones either die or somehow escape.
Agu and Commandant represent two sides of one situation – the former is the child soldier brought into a way of life by older and more cynical men, the latter a molder of boys who turns them into killing machines in order to further his own cause and line his own pockets. This story is one of devastation and of a viciousness many of us will never ever know. I left the film changed slightly, seeing the conflicting view of child soldiers through the eyes of the character Agu, and I also felt the emotional weight of what these boys go through lie heavy on my chest for days. It isn’t easy to ignore how powerful Beasts of No Nation can get. This boasts excellent cinematography, direction and a tight screenplay from Cary Fukunaga, plus a solid and exciting score by Dan Romer, as well as the foundational performances of Attah and Elba, which comes together to make one of the best feature films out of 2015. Hands down.