Beasts Of No Nation
Despite the fact that I was contributing to the downfall of the cinema industry, I just had to give Beasts Of No Nation a look when, over a year after it had finished filming, it finally got its release via Netflix. Of course, I exaggerate, but Beasts Of No Nation certainly is one to note: the first feature film financed and distributed by the online streaming giant, a direct challenge to the larger chains of cinemas that have chosen to subsequently boycott it. I honestly don’t think it will work out all that well for them, and Netflix shows no signs of budging from their position, ahead of next year’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend, sure to net them a sizable chunk of change.
But I digress. As hard as it might be to disassociate a film from the minor furore surround its distribution, I did try and give Beasts Of No Nation the benefit of a clean slate, and try not to look at it as a potential pathfinder for a new era of film. Adapted from the Uzodinma Iweala novel of the same name, would Beasts Of No Nation prove an engaging look at the abhorrent practise of child soldiering, or would I sink under the weight of its own bleakness?
Agu (Abraham Attah) is a young resident of an unnamed west African country, living in a peaceful village with his parents and siblings. But when a brutal civil war engulfs his idyllic home, Agu finds himself conscripted as a child soldier into the “NDF” of a fearsome and terrifying Commandant (Idris Elba) who keeps his troops in line with a grim mixture of intimidation, mysticism and paternal actions. First forced to engage in numerous atrocities, and then doing so freely, Agu starts to lose a hold of the boy he once was.
As you might well expect, Beasts Of No Nation is a dark ride. Super dark. It is not an experience for the faint hearted, this sombre recitation of a young boy’s time as a child soldier. But that is the whole point, since Beasts Of No Nation essentially lacks a larger thematic one: to showcase the darkness, the violence and the inherent wrongness of the child soldier lifestyle, by portraying everything that comes with it – death, murder, war crimes, sexual abuse, drug abuse etc – in as upfront and visceral a manner as possible.
That wouldn’t be possible without the central performance of Attah in the role of Agu. I can’t really think of a child role that would be more difficult to film than this one, considering what Attah is supposed to perform or react to in the course of Beasts Of No Nation. It gets grim, and it gets extreme. But Attah pulls it off wonderfully, in a manner that brought thoughts of Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips, in one of the finest performances of a young actor in recent times, and with the potential of adding “ever” to that sentence. Attah, through his actual time onscreen and his narration, gives the role of Agu every bit of realism that it needs, from his early days on his idyllic village through to his days of atrocity and warfare. It is a heavy responsibility, mixing childlike capering with drug-trip violence, but Attah does it well throughout.
Certainly, Beasts Of No Nation really needs that strong backbone in terms of its lead, or else the horror of what we have to endure for two and a half hours might not succeed as much as it does. Director Cary Fukunaga takes his time in the set-up, presenting Agu’s west African village as a simple but homey place, not paradise, but enough given the relative circumstances. It would be too easy for a director to present such things as too idyllic, but instead it comes off as simply home, a place less worse off than other parts of Africa, but still with its issues. Agu’s problems are struggling with schoolwork, and dealing with his girl-chasing teenaged brother. Fukunaga has a degree of patience in these opening sections that borders on the impractical: Beasts Of No Nation’s lengthy running time does grate by the conclusion, and much of that is down to the first act, which doesn’t balance the set-up requirements with the growing sense of dread quite as well as it thinks it does.
When the catastrophe does occur, and Agu’s family is killed or vanishes, we are left alone with this young boy for a time, as he wonders into the wilds of Africa fleeing government killers. It is a brief but effective sequence, as Agu begins the transformation from the boy he was into the more animalistic and depraved creature who falls prey to the “NDF”, the films stand-in for real life entities like the LRA and the RUF.
They find their expression through the commanding performance of the “Commandant”, the much-noted Idris Elba. He is immense in that role, the sort of thing, so far removed from the drek he had to play with in Pacific Rim, that an actor of his quality is far worthier of interpreting. And his interpretation matches the darkness and speaks to the reality of such organisations: the Commandant is a sad little King of a sad little army, who talks the talk, walks with a swagger and impassionedly gets the boys under his command to believe him a military genius and semi-mystical figure, which to the outside eye is as pathetic as it seems. And all to the whims of higher-ups who barely think anything of him, as we see in time. Matching a barely hidden anger with a pervert-like intensity, Elba delivers the goods throughout as the Commandant, from the moment he first meets the captured Agu and details how a boy is dangerous, because he has eyes to see, hands to hold a gun and fingers to pull a trigger: a manifesto for child soldiering if ever there was one.
As I said before, Beasts Of No Nation lacks a sort of stand-out main point, seeming more to be just a strange biographical tale, and from the moment Agu is recruited into the NDF and its strange band of brothers, it becomes a warped version of the war story. You can see the beats here and apply them to many other films and stories: the recruitment, the initial training, the missteps, the growing admiration, the first contact with the enemy and the progression into a brutal and unscrupulous killer.
The NDF is a bizarre mishmash of recognisable military tradition, with ranks, tactics and grand strategic goals, and twisted elements alongside, from the soldiers who go onto battle without any clothes to the drugs many take to make the experience more tolerable. Unknown names like Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye and Opeyemi Fagbohungbe populate these sections and the ranks of the NDF, giving fine performances as other boys and young men sucked into the deranged world of the Commandant.
The NDF experience soon becomes one of strange ritual and quasi-religion, with the Commandant as a prophet and the children around him as his fanatically loyal disciples, all headed towards “Tarot”, the Promised Land the Commandant guarantees, though in crude sexual imagery that Agu and others can barely understand at their age. It would be wrong to say that Agu is seduced into the lifestyle, but he is not some completely unwilling victim at the same time: instead, it is better to say, I think, that the only way his fragile psyche can deal with the unrelenting horror all around him is to embrace a good part of it. As Agu starts losing himself, the film takes on more and more of a dark and warped fairy tale aspect.
The film does lack a larger political point. The various factions in this war are just names or letters, with the “government” being the force that began all the problems for Agu in the first place. Just what the NDF is fighting for is remarkably vague, and largely unimportant when it comes to looking at the experience of Agu on his own. He’s just a pawn, and his brief witnessing of the command problems and political bartering are fleeting moments.
If Beasts Of No Nation has a very serious fault, it’s the way that it just sort of peters out, into an ending that goes on for far too long for very little end result. I won’t go into details – I have heard that the ending differs somewhat from that of the book, which I have not read – but it is enough to say that whatever momentum and interest the film has been able to build up on the march with the NDF fizzles in a drawn-out malaise, where a certain amount of self-destruction takes far longer than it really should have. The film also ends on a frustratingly ambiguous note in regards Agu and his ultimate fate, which is in keeping with the biographical nature of the story I suppose, but which left one feeling rather empty at the conclusion, pondering Agu’s late declaration on the nature of evil acts and the people who perpetrate them. Was this Fukunaga’s point? Maybe, but it won’t be too everyone’s taste.
At least his visuals are far more impressive. It must have been a hell of a job for him, but he manages to inject a great deal of colour and life into this unlikely war story. The African jungle and the warriors who inhabit it are shot marvellously, with the correct contrast between natural beauty and the griminess of military life in such circumstances. Fukunaga really wants to show faces off, and Beasts Of No Nation is over-flowing with portrait shots of various characters at trying moments, a decent way of tracking the progression of Agu from naïve child to military drone.
Effective use of montage sequence and tracking shots litter Beasts Of No Nation, and the film really does feel like the work of a director and a cinematographer who have been preparing a very long time for the chance to actually put it all to film. A sequence surrounding a battle scene around halfway through – less a battle, and more an exploration of how far the Commandant’s religious murmurings can take the boys under his command – is a particular stand-out, as is an ambush perpetrated by Agu while under narcotic influence, a haze of clashing colours that produce a dreamlike effect, or maybe nightmarish would be a batter descriptor.
And the script too must come in for some praise. While there were plenty of moment where subtitles were a necessity – one of the perks of day one VOD options I suppose – I didn’t mind in the slightest, as the authentic twang, and that unique meshing of west African languages with broken English, gave Beasts Of No Nation that really necessary feeling of reality, helping immensely in grabbing the viewer and engaging them with the setting and the characters. It isn’t even that there are many stand-out lines and interactions – there are some, like the Commandant’s opening monologue on the capabilities of children, or his later back and forth with an increasingly indoctrinated Agu – but just that feeling of authenticity and reality: if the film aims to provide a realistic eye-view of what being a child soldier is, giving all of these characters the right voice was a vital step on the road.
I don’t know if Beasts Of No Nation is going to be the foreshadowing of cinema death that some make it out to be. I would say that it’s unlikely, but who knows what may happen in the future? But judging it purely on its own terms, it is a first-rate look at an issue and an atrocity that too many people in the western world are content to either ignore or look at only through the lens of slactivist thinking, ala “Kony 2012”. There are no great higher points being made about the situation in parts of Africa, just an in-depth and visceral look at the child soldier lifestyle, the damage it does and the lives that it takes. It does this through good direction, good script-writing and a mostly well-paced story of war and loss. But it is in its two central performances that it really stands out from the crowd, and the film is worth seeing, or enduring as you like, for those alone. If films of this nature, and general quality, are what we can expect from Netflix in the future, then maybe the death of cinema might not be so bad. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).