If there is one thing that profoundly comes across in Cary Fukunaga’s searing war drama it is that war has a cost – an intense human cost. In the case of Agu, the preadolescent lead character in “Beasts of No Nation”, it’s about the loss of family, the loss of childhood, the loss of innocence. It is a bleak, uncomfortable, yet thoroughly arresting portrait of child soldiering that never tiptoes around the revulsion of its subject matter.
This was a seven-year project for Fukunaga where he worked as writer, director, and cinematographer. It is a fictional piece based on a 2015 debut novel by Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala. Fukunaga knew he wasn’t making a movie for the masses. This simply isn’t the type of material that people will flock to see. But that is just one reason to respect the talented 38-year old who previously made the terrific “Sin Nombre” but is probably best known as the director for the first season of “True Detective”.
To bring the film to light Fukunaga and company had to navigate numerous hurdles. Some were related to financing or securing distribution. But there were also problems tied specifically to shooting in Eastern Ghana – malaria, theft of equipment, and near-death experiences. Fukunaga would later call it the hardest thing he has tackled, but the movie flourishes due to the rich authenticity of the locations.
The film opens with a sequence that haunts the rest of the story. Young Agu (played with eye-opening purity by newcomer Abraham Attah) and his friends are running around with the hull of an old television. They implore potential buyers to watch through the hollowed out screen while they play out different TV shows on the other side. Kung Fu, soap operas, 3-D. It’s a playful and spirited sequence built around the vitality of childhood. It plants a picture in our minds that slowly erodes as the film moves forward.
Agu lives in an unnamed West African village with his parents, big brother, baby sister, and disabled grandfather. The village lives under the illusion of safety in what is called a “buffer zone”. But reality lurks on each side of them in the form of opposing forces in a violent civil war. Inevitably the war bleeds over into the village and the savagery that follows sees Agu’s family killed. He flees into the jungle where he is eventually found by a rebel faction and their charismatic leader known only as Commandant (played with a forceful, seductive swagger by Idris Elba).
Commandant recruits the reluctant Agu into his army of child soldiers who he calls his “warriors”. He starts by breaking down any barrier of innocence and then preying on Agu’s vulnerability. He’s a hypnotic snake oil salesman who his soldiers see as larger-than-life. We also visualize him that way although our lofty perspective is tainted by the other evil side of him we see. He is a ruthless and vile egotist who takes his army from village to village, teaching them to slaughter, to pillage, and to do whatever sadistic bidding he may require. We get scenes reminding us of their innocence, but they are swallowed up by the horrors Commandant leads the children to do. Elba is phenomenal in showing us this brutal, mythical force and then later the insecure and self-destructive layers that threaten to undo him.
Fukunaga doesn’t take the easy way out, but he also doesn’t relish in the blood and violence. Everything has meaning and each atrocity we see through Agu’s eyes strips away more of his hold on right and wrong. The morality struggle is excruciating to watch and the film’s reliance on young Attah is bold. But even more audacious is the performance from the 14 year-old first time actor who channels more authentic emotion and inner-conflict than the most seasoned vet.
I also appreciate how “Beasts” doesn’t launch itself into the political realm. Some critics have knocked the film for not talking about a specific conflict or focusing on a specific regime. They speak as if the film loses some of its potency as a result. I completely disagree. Fukunaga has said he didn’t want this to be “an issues film”. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a conscious meaning to much of what we see. And the film’s avoidance of politics allows for a more personal and impacting story to be told.
“Beasts of No Nation” is a movie you may not want to see a second time, but it’s one you must see a first time. Experiencing Agu as our eyes and ears; experiencing his struggles, fears, and dissent down this dark and violent path is crushing. But buried deep within this story is a glimmer of hope. It is at times unrecognizable and unfathomable, but it’s there and it keeps us deeply connected to this young boy. “Beasts” may not make tons of money and it may not get a lot of talk come awards time. It should. This is one of the more emotional cinematic experiences of the year and easily one of the best films. It deserves an audience.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS
Thorough review (much more than mine!) I don’t think this will get best pic nommed, but I do think that Elba and Attah should be very strong candidates for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.
Hey thanks man. I’m with you. I don’t see it getting in the Best Picture race but I sure wish it would. As for Elba, I’ll be REALLY disappointed if he isn’t nominated. And Attah…amazing work. You gotta say, that’s one of the most powerful debuts for a child actor ever, right?
Without a doubt! Maybe someone someday should do a phenomenal five of top debut child actor roles? 🙂
Hmmm. That’s one I haven’t done. Good idea.
Wow, this looks intense! I will definitely see it at least once though.
Definitely do. Do you have Netflix? It actually released in theaters and on Netflix at the same time.
I don’t have Netflix. They are looking at rolling it out here by the end of 2016. We will see how that goes, hoping for the best. Will keep my eyes peeled for this though!
Arrrgh! Now that sucks. The Netflix/Theater same day release has been a little controversial over here. The four biggest nationwide theater chains boycotted the film and refused to show it because it also released on Netflix. That means it only showed and smaller independent screens. I would love to see the Netflix numbers to see if it was worthwhile.
Hmmmm, that would be interesting, to know how that turned out. If ever you find out whether it was worth the dramatics, let me know!
I certainly will. You would think they would release the numbers at some point. If I were a studio I would want to make sure it was worthwhile for my film before I would go that route.
This movie will sit alongside Schindler’s List for me in a little category called ‘amazing movies I never want to watch again’. It was so heartbreaking to see Agu change from such an innocent child to what he became in the end. Great review!
Thanks so much Allie. It definitely does fall into that “Schindler’s List” category, doesn’t it? It’s no easy watch but it is so powerful. And did you love Elba and Attah as much as I did? Two brilliant performances.
I’m glad you liked this one, Keith. I’ve only heard good things; in fact, I’ll probably show it my Recent World History class to my seniors. The focus played on the child soldiers, the emotional and physical ramifications, that interest me, not the politics.
I loved it Cindy. Such a strong film but really difficult to watch. It released in theaters and Netflix at the same time so it is out there.
And I am absolutely, 100% agree with you. Keeping the focus human-centered instead of political was far more powerful and far more interesting.
Nice write up my friend. I agree with what you say; it’s a tough, moving watch but I guess ‘toughness’ is all relative. I hope more people see it, even if it does involve a subscription. I thought the younger actors were superb, as well as Elba, and Fukunaga is a considerable talent behind the camera. I haven’t seen Sin Nombre…worth a watch?
Thanks so much Stu. “Sin Nombre” is a really solid picture. I’ve only seen it the one time and that was several years back. Have you seen his “True Detective ” run? I’ve heard so many people talk about it, but I haven’t seen it.
I too hope more people will see this. The simultaneous Netflix/theater release has been interesting. The major theater chains’ boycott couldn’t have helped. On the flipside you get a month’s worth of Netflix for the price of one movie ticket. But you have to have access to it. It will be interesting to see how many other movies will even try to go that route.
It is on my list but maybe I’ll try and find a way to watch it sooner. I did see the first season of True Detective and his work on it is excellent (I think he directed all eight episodes). There’s one tracking shot in particular that people have rightly praised, but his work throughout the series is solid.
Good point re the value of Netflix. I’ll refrain from discussing it further as I mention the service so often on here and I don’t think they need any extra free publicity!
Hey it’s no problem. I have an on-again/off-again relationship with Netflix. I don’t watch television so when the movies dry up I cancel my subscription for a while. I will hop back on in a month or so and have a lot of fresh stuff to watch.
I dread watching this, it’s almost Xmas time which is for happy movies and this looks bleak as hell, though I’ll definitely see it before the Oscars, I’m sure either both of them or at least of the main actors are gonna score big nominations
It isn’t easy to watch. But it is a must see. I hope you’re right about scoring noms. Elba is phenomenal and it is hard to believe Attah isn’t a seasoned child actor.
Attah and Tremblay in Beasts and Room: two amazing performances by young actors this year. Great review.
Thanks! This was such an amazing picture. Not an easy watch but one that is rewarding. I still haven’t had a chance to see Room. Waiting for it to open here.
I haven’t buckled down to this one yet. It just feels a bit beyond me right now. Sounds really interesting though.
It’s intense for certain. But at the same time it is a powerful experience. I loved it and I’m really excited with the awards buzz it’s getting. If you have a chance give it a look. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on it.
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