The most powerful movies are the ones that show bleak, deeply disturbing scenarios but do so in such a meticulously crafted way that the final product can only be described as beautiful. I’m talking about movies such as Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, Katia Lund/Fernando Mierelles’ City of God, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, and on a larger filmmaking scale, even Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Comparing the real-life horrors that inspired such films to one another is a pointless practice that does nothing except maybe make light of said horrors. But the films, the decisions that go into them and the way we experience them, can be compared. All four of the films I mentioned above are so crippling to watch at certain moments but also so well made on every level that it’s nearly impossible to look away. Thanks to the multi-talented Cary Joji Fukunaga, it seems as if we have another masterpiece to add to this arbitrary list. I’m talking of course about Beasts of No Nation, one of the very best movies of the year, and one you can stream on Netflix RIGHT NOW.
Beasts of No Nation is set in an unnamed African nation going through a civil war. This anonymity, which even extends to most of the nameless characters, is extremely important to the underlying themes of the film. This isn’t a movie about a particular war, and ultimately, its ideas aren’t even exclusive to one continent. This is a movie about young people growing numb to the violent acts that they witness or commit themselves, and afterwards, how it’s difficult for them to live a normal life having participated in that same violence that they’re now well aware has torn their environments apart. Beasts of No Nation is also about obedience and positional hierarchy. There’s not a character in this film that doesn’t have to answer to somebody; even Idris Elba’s perturbing rebel leader/warlord, referred to only as “Commandant”, has bosses that lecture him. To refer to this film as simply a hyper-violent story about a child soldier in Africa is to ignore the deep psychological exploration Fukunaga attempted.
With that being said, it is hyper-violence and the systematic concept of child soldiers that set the wheels of the film in motion. Agu, played by fourteen year-old Ghanaian first-time actor Abraham Attah, is a young boy living in one of the few villages in his country that hasn’t been ripped apart by the war. He’s quickly established as a slightly mischievous albeit well-intentioned kid from a good family who’s popular amongst his friends. The first twenty minutes of the film find him having fun and narrating his life, but we know bullets are going to fly any minute, so there’s a black cloud hanging above the funnier moments. Tonally, it’s very weird. Even in moments of celebration, Beasts of No Nation doesn’t want you to feel comfortable.
To make a long premise short without spoiling too much, the war does hit Agu’s village. His entire family is killed, but he escapes off into the forest, where he’s eventually picked up by a rebel battalion led by Elba’s Commandant. Things only get worse from there, as what Agu’s forced to witness and do quickly transforms him from a once charming young boy into a AK-toting, joint-smoking killing machine.
What Attah does here is absolutely remarkable, even if he had years of acting experience. The film isn’t overly empathetic to Agu. When he does heinous things, he doesn’t seem to enjoy them, but he still does them. Attah has this way of capturing a face that is both scared and ruthless. He joins the rebels because he has no other option or means of survival. The manipulation tactics of the Commandant certainly contribute, but it never feels like Agu had a choice. This creates an interesting dynamic that Attah handles perfectly. He’s not a hero, far from it. I wouldn’t even necessarily call him a victim. But that’s what’s so interesting about this character. He’s a real person responding to a seemingly hopeless situation.
Idris Elba’s Commandant is one of the most compelling and brutal devil figures ever put on film. He’s part military leader, part warped father figure, part political preacher. Part Col. Kurtz, and part Idi Amin. Elba fully immerses himself in the role. His first appearance is grand. He emerges from behind a mob of children toting machine guns, making his large stature all the more imposing. His purple-tinted shades make it hard to draw any truth from his eyes, and Elba’s accent is on point. When he starts a chant you almost want to follow suit. Elba is so convincing and this is so important because we need to see just how one man could entice children like this. The script subtly hints at his character partaking in cannibalism and pedophilia, but never really goes into too much detail. Perhaps there were graphic scenes cut from this already very graphic film. But regardless, it makes him even more of a monster.
The scariest thing about Elba here is that his character represents what Agu and these other children will become, if they aren’t killed first. Much like how the children all want to impress their Commandant, Elba wants to impress the Supreme Commander. When he finally meets him, the boss man couldn’t seem to care less. Elba is heartbroken, and in a sick way, you feel for him. This becomes his undoing, and Elba perfectly displays the loss in confidence and command that his character undergoes. This is major, important acting from one of the finest performers working today. Pantheon-level stuff.
As good as Attah and Elba are, Fukunaga is perhaps the brightest star on display. This is the truest type of passion project. He worked on the script, based on Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name, for over seven years. Funding was finally found, though it was only $6 million. Fukunaga stretches that to the max. This looks like a studio epic, not some art house film with mostly non-professional actors. Fukunaga did the cinematography as well, and his camera is every bit as impressive here as it was on True Detective or in Jane Eyre. Fukunaga loves using landscapes as part of his story, and not just for establishing shots. In nearly every scene we cut between close-ups and overhead shots of the lush forests and battered villages in which most of the film takes place. Fukunaga’s sense of space and perspective are impeccable, especially for someone who, by filmmaking standards, is still very young. There’s no denying his talent at this point. He’s established himself as one of the premier directors from this new school that’s come about over the last decade, along with names like J.C. Chandor, Duncan Jones, and Dennis Villenueve.
There are a couple of subtle decisions Fukuanga made when shooting that stood out to me. The first comes when Agu takes his first life (it’s not a spoiler to say he kills numerous people). As the child quite literally butchers an innocent engineering student with a machete, the camera takes the perspective of the victim as he falls to the ground, looking up at Agu swinging. In the background, out of focus, Elba paces and watches closely. He’s licking his lips, as if he’s getting off from watching his new protégé murder a man. It’s one of the many disturbing images that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
The other comes towards the end when a U.N. task force comes across a group of the child soldiers. As they search them and lead them into vans, they make them all put their hands over their heads. It’s night and the soldiers are shining flashlights on the kids…who have no hair on their armpits. This little visual detail reinforces how young this boys are after we see them age at an accelerated over the course of the film. Lesser directors wouldn’t even bother with this, but with Fukunaga, no detail is too small. I’m eagerly anticipating whatever project he chooses next (reportedly a TV adaptation of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist).
Beasts of No Nation is violent and unforgiving. It’s a hard pill to swallow. Definitely not a “Netflix & Chill” movie. Yet it still hints at optimism at certain points, specifically with the gorgeous final shot of the movie. It’s pacing is strange and a little bit of intrigue is lost towards the end as Elba’s character becomes a bit subdued, but that doesn’t really take away from the overall emotional reaction one has to this movie.
Ultimately, it’s as deftly directed and as well acted of a movie as I’ve seen this year. Few filmmakers and financiers have the balls to attempt this sort of art, and that’s probably a good thing, because I’m not sure I want to watch too many more movies like Beasts of No Nation.