“Beasts of No Nation” Movie Review


     If you experienced the first season of HBO’s “True Detective”, than you already know the creative visual style employed by Cary Fukunaga, who helmed eight of the ten episodes.  His compositions indicative of a filmmaker who has control of every detail within any given frame, each complete with carefully thought out color and lighting schemes and glorious wide shots  giving the viewer a panoramic look at the environments the characters occupy.  Fukunaga’s skill set worked well in “True Detective”, especially given the scope of the investigation and the vast area within Louisiana the lead characters had to cover in order to find their man.  The same can be said for his latest feature, “Beasts of No Nation”, an immersive look into a child’s involuntary transformation into a soldier amidst a brutal civil war in an unknown African country.

     In a sort of unorthodox move, Netflix purchased the rights to “Beasts of No Nation” in an effort to enter the film distribution business, but also gain further recognition by way of the film’s potential Oscar prospects.  This normally wouldn’t change anything, except for the fact Netflix  chose to give the film a platform release (about 4-6 theaters in Los Angeles and New York) for awards qualification and then premiered it exclusively on their streaming service.  This is significantly different than what other premium subscription services have done in the past with feature length films, as HBO, Showtime, and others have allowed their film’s awards prospects to be limited to those recognizing television only.  Because of the brief release in theaters, “Beasts of No Nation” is set to receive nominations in film categories.  It should be interesting to monitor how well the strategy ends up working.

     As for the film, “Beasts of No Nation” hits you at the very deepest of your emotional core, not just because of the tragic subject matter, but mainly because we are experiencing the journey of a child forced into peril.  15 year old Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah portrays Agu, an 8 or 9 year old boy who watches as his young life seemingly falls out from under him when his family finds themselves in the middle of a civil war in what remains during the film an unnamed country.  The initial scenes show us the daily family life of Agu and what he and his brothers do to keep busy.  Fukunaga’s script, based on Uzodinma Iweala’s novel, has Agu narrate the film in English as the early scenes have the characters speaking an unintelligible broken English that likely includes various phrases spoken in language native to the locale.  Even the early scenes will make the average American viewer thankful for the things they are fortunate enough to have.  Especially knowing each person is likely watching the film on a big screen television, while they see Agu and his friends trying to sell what they call an “imagination TV”, which is an old TV missing the screen that they utilize by having a prospective buyer watch them act out different shows as if the TV was a portal to their own brand of entertainment.

     Because the story is told through the eyes of Agu, you’ll find many of the characters remain underdeveloped, but one can easily connect with Agu’s family and the precious few interactions we see them have before they are separated.  They value these moments each day and this is a testament to the mother (Ama Abebrese) and father (Kobina Amissah-Sam) who have successfully communicated to their children what is really important in life.  Sadly, these family values are overshadowed when survival becomes the most important thing to all involved.  Agu’s village is attacked by armed militants who intend on executing everyone they find.  Agu gets away, but not before he watches his father and brother brutally murdered.  As he runs into the jungle, expending every bit of energy he has to evade being killed himself, he runs into an underground rebel force camouflaged within the trees who seem just as intent on killing him as the militants did.

     The leader of this rebel group is known as the Commandant.  As played by Idris Elba, the Commandant becomes a father figure to Agu, just as he has to many other young boys within the ranks.  He preaches to them about revenge and offers them the life of a warrior.  Something that likely seems attractive to Agu and the other young men so as to allow them to be a part of something with all of their families now long gone or dead.  Both Fukunaga’s script and his visual style lead me to compare “Beasts of No Nation” to Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” and Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, as there is no shortage of hyperrealism and haunting imagery within the bloody battle sequences and the relationships forged between the fighters.  This means that sometimes everything stands still and the filmmakers allow the audience to take in what they are watching as you see characters who are doing terrible things in the name of a cause that is really never revealed.

     As I watched, I thought of Marlon Brando’s famous line in “Apocalypse Now” where he refers to war as “the horror”.  The predicaments Agu endures as such a young soul speaks volumes about the atrocities of war in a way that touches you even more so than seeing adults in the same situation.  There are scenes in this film that are both gut wrenching and difficult to watch, but the craft behind every thing you see on screen is undeniable.  And while Elba’s performance is solid, Attah’s is absolutely jolting, which indicates to me he is highly deserving of recognition come awards season.  One may argue Fukunaga may have included a few to many unnecessary scenes that significantly increased the film’s overall running time, but you could also look at it as a way to show the tired and boredom these soldiers were dealing with and just how quick they had to be ready to fight and kill in some of the most brutal ways possible.  GRADE: B+