Release: 16th October 2015
The journey of a young boy, Agu, who is forced to join a group of soldiers in an unnamed West African country. While Agu fears his commander and many of the men around him, his fledgling childhood has been brutally shattered by the war raging through his country, and he is at first torn between conflicting revulsion and fascination with the mechanics of war.
Fresh from his breakout stint as director of True Detective season one, filmmaker Cary Fukunaga seems ill at ease resting on his laurels. Instead of cashing in on immediate success, he has gone and adapted Uzodinma Iweala’s harrowing book Beasts of No Nation into a tour-de-force of independent cinema.
Always maintaining a dreamy quality, the film opens with a breezy and often humorous depiction of humble family life. Set in an undisclosed part of Africa (possibly near Nigeria) Fukunaga plays the film like a Stand By Me for the Blood Diamond generation. Whimsy, however, is soon torn to shreds by a burst of tragic violence that feels so honest; it is almost too difficult to watch. The film then slowly descents into a freak show of tortured youth and a battle torn society.
Agu and his peers exist in a hellish Neverland, where the lost boys are ghost-eyed warriors; who commit horrendous acts of violence one moment, then play ‘blind man’s buff’ the next. Or, like a horrific Oliver Twist, where Idris Elba’s Commandant is a brutal Fagin/Bill Sikes hybrid; a man who flits between training, torturing and molesting his young army, all the while leading them on a crime wave across the country. Watch as Agu enters a Pinocchio like Pleasure Island. Only instead of boys becoming donkeys as they drink booze and play pool; they live on a diet of drugs, rape, murder and emotional ruin, until they eventually dissolve into shattered souls disguised as children.
It would be fair to say that Beasts of No Nation is a modern Vietnam War movie. Witnessing the journey of a wide-eyed young man becoming increasingly muddied and corrupted by the atrocities of war, is like seeing Full Metal Jacket with underage performers. There are definite airs of Apocalypse Now and Platoon about the film, whilst the third act has a healthy dose of Born on the 4th of July about it.
Fukunaga’s direction, as you’d expect, is outstanding. One gripe is that the visuals feel more conservative in comparison to the wild aesthetics of True Detective. However, there are moments that stand out. An extended shot which details a home invasion, explores Agu’s confused longing for his mother, viscerally depicts the murder of a woman and her daughter and then ends on a vista of bloodshed and terror. A colourful drug fuelled shoot out; and a particular scene involving a machete that will haunt your dreams. There is no denying that this is a director who could very easily become a new icon of cinema.
You wouldn’t exactly use the terms “dull” or “slow” when describing a film such as Beasts of No Nation, but whatever adjective describes feeling restless and being borderline distracted is what I would use to describe my feelings during early and latter parts of the second act. The film starts and finishes in such a strong way, that the inevitable sagging comes in the film’s ‘lesser’ moments.
You’d need to have rot in your brain not to acknowledge young Abraham Attah’s performance as Agu. He seamlessly transforms from a wide eyed youth to a bleak shell of a human being. There are countless moments in the film where Attah gives the sort of performance that would win your Fassbenders and your Kidmans an Oscar. In particular, the crushing monologue he delivers in the film’s closing moments – shot single take – is just magnetic. His is the best performance caught on film since Chiwetel Ejiofor’s devastating stare in 12 Years a Slave. In fact, both film’s share a succinct DNA of tragedy and longing.
Elba is also on top form as Commandant. His is a brave performance that surrenders to the evils necessary to make the role believable; descending into a Colonel Kurtz like insanity, dragging his legion of child soldiers with him. Then boiling away quietly in the background is Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye as the mute Strika. Quaye’s little face says more than pages of dialogue ever could. His heartbreaking presence in the film adds an unexpected level of depth to the otherwise one-dimensional NRF soldiers.
You don’t watch Beast of No Nation for entertainment, or even for the intellectual experience. You watch it because sometimes we all need reminding that the world is in dire need of change. It is an empowering film that stirs the spirit and awakens ones faculties from apathy.
This is a film about the beauty of childhood and the violence of adulthood. This marriage of childhood innocence and shocking evil gives a great incite into just how outstanding Fukunaga’s now defunct passion project I.T would have been. But alas, Beasts Of No Nation is a more than suitable alternative.
Film Grade: A-
You can, of course, catch the film on Netflix as part of their landmark deal for simultaneous theatrical and home release. But if you want to see it on the big screen, then Curzon Cinemas will be the only place you can watch it in the UK.