Movie and VOD Review: Beasts of No Nation

bigger beast

Abraham Attah as Agu in “Beasts of No Nation”

Per recent UNICEF statistics, “More than 300,000 child soldiers are currently exploited in situations of armed conflict.” Beasts of No Nation takes an unflinching look at one particular child soldier.

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

Armies fighting each other for territorial control is a story that’s been told since the dawn of time. And the collateral damage of homeless children, forcibly conscripted and turned into underage killing machines, has become a familiar, albeit terrible, fact. It’s one thing to know about it … but in Beasts of No Nation, the cinematic narrative is another thing altogether.

Based on Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 debut novel, filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective – Season One, Jane Eyre, Sin Nombre) takes on multiple duties as screenwriter, director and cinematographer. With this Netflix project, Fukunaga further builds on his reputation as a filmmaker whose versatility is as impressive as his growing body of work.

The fictional story zeroes in on one perfectly happy child named Agu (a brilliant debut by Abraham Attah). Agu is sassy, bright and confident, fully aware that he is well-loved by his family: his schoolteacher father, his nurturing mother, his vain older brother and baby sister. Since the country (unnamed, but assumed to be Nigeria) is at war, school has been suspended, leaving the kids to play all day and, in some cases, cook up a little mischief. Such as Agu, an exuberant smalltime con artist.

Fukunaga gives us a smart opening scene in which Agu and his best buddy are standing at a distance from their friends, all joyfully playing in the field. They watch and assess, deciding who to draft into their next schoolboy scheme. The scene is an ironic portent, given that Agu will undergo a similar assessment prior to his being drafted into a violent army led by the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba).

The callback effect continues throughout. Such as when, in the first act, Agu’s village is mowed down by bloodthirsty militia who are bent on killing every last man, woman and child. The scenario will then repeat itself later in the movie, when Agu the child soldier carries out a similar brutality. (The village and the people he attacks look eerily like his own.) Filmmaker Fukunaga wisely keeps the camera on the boy’s seemingly immobile, yet subtly expressive face, allowing us to observe that although Agu is a “good soldier,” he hasn’t lost his moral compass. His conscience is as obvious as if it were a neon sign flashing across his face.

Abraham Attah as Agu

Abraham Attah as Agu

It’s agonizing to watch Agu caught up in this hopeless situation. His arc from a mischievous, fun-loving 11-year-old boy to a grieving orphan to an unwilling, conscripted soldier to a hard-hearted killer to a zombie-like shell, stumbling numb, is riveting.

If Fukunaga hadn’t found the perfect young actor, Beasts of No Nation could not have worked. But the filmmaker got lucky and discovered Abraham Attah — an uneducated, 14-year-old Ghanaian street vendor — during an improv process that Fukunaga conducted with 29 other non-actor kids. It’s nearly impossible to comprehend how this untrained teenager communicates so clearly with the camera lens. The depth of his character’s grief, shame, confusion and despair is akin to the talents of the finest adult actors working in cinema today.

(l to r) Abraham Attah, Idris Elba

(l to r) Abraham Attah, Idris Elba

Starring opposite Attah is Idris Elba as the mercenary army’s leader, known simply as “Commandant.” Elba is perfect as the cocksure captain, basking in his authority, wearing his crown – or in this case, his star-studded beret – with ease, assuming the mien of a man born to power. He is a master in the art of manipulation: with Agu, cognizant that this little boy is mourning for his murdered father, he takes on the role of Daddy. As the situation warrants, he volleys between a kind father figure and an inciting God, urging Agu to avenge the death of his family … to kill, kill, kill. Fukunaga’s screenplay offers no back story on the character but, given the Commandant’s overweening need to win at all costs, we can assume he’s risen in the ranks due to a power grab rather than any dedicated commitment to a cause.

Unfortunately, at a running time of 137 minutes, the film cries out for a substantial edit. Frequent scenes of plowing through villages on killing sprees grow tiresome, losing their intended effect; ditto the oft-repeated scenarios between the Commandant and his men.

That said, the music by Dan Romer is beautifully understated, reflecting West African rhythms and melodies. And Fukunaga’s camera work is often glorious, such as when Agu first runs into the bush after his family is gone. He wanders aimlessly as he weeps, small and alone. As he wanders, the camera keeps pulling back, with the lush countryside virtually swallowing him up … as if to erase his existence. Indeed, in that instance, the little boy is erased forever. Leading to the inevitable birth of a beast.

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Rating on a scale of 5 innocent little boys: 4

Release date: October 16, 2015 (On Netflix and ltd. theatrical release)
Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Screenplay by: Cary Fukunaga
Based on the novel by: Uzodinma Iweala
Cast: Idris Alba, Abraham Attah, Kurt Egyiawan, Jude Akuwudike, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye
Rating: N/A
Running Time: 137 minutes

Here’s the trailer:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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