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