James Clay // Film Critic
It’s impossible as Americans that we can put ourselves in the shoes of the African nations engaged in a Civil War. The terror and the heart break of BEASTS OF NO NATION is rough stuff to say the least.
Director Cary Fukunaga (best known for directing the first season of TRUE DETECTIVE) has empathy for the dire situations that the families have to go through on a day-to-day basis. Even things like getting water is a massive chore, but somehow many find a way to trudge through with a smile.
This isn’t a film simply trying to show the desolate nature of Africa. Fukunaga depicts the unnamed nation with a purpose that isn’t nearly as transparent as many of the social justice films that are being released for Oscar season. BEASTS OF NO NATION brings the tension, along with the tears through the crippling fear that encompass the landscape.
The audience surrogate is Agu (Abraham Attah), a 12-year-old boy who’s a normal kid with a great sense of humor and an undying love for his family. Once tragedy strikes he is on his own to fend for himself when a battalion of other adolescents led by Commandant (Idris Elba) stumble across the crying boy and bring him up through the ranks. Western eyes are largely blind to these sorts of horror and as Elba’s enigmatic character states at one point, “a boy is a dangerous thing”– and he’s exactly right. Filled with anger and fear, these adolescents are putty in the hands of something much more sinister at work. Really all Agu and the others are looking for is a surrogate family, a community to love, and something to restore their faith in life.
The brutality Agu faces would be miserable to our standards but he adapts. He is fed, he has protection, and he kills, so often so that he comes numb to the vile stench of death. Attah’s endearing facial expressions give the audience a soul-crushing experience into the mind of what this young boy is going through. Agu’s loss of innocence chips away at his psyche. At one point he is joking with a peer– the reticent yet brutish Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), all the while somebody is being butchered just a few yards away.
Fukunaga, who also serves as director of photography, captures a large canvas with a cacophony of images that are so brutal they seem like that can’t be real. Watching this film is a lucid experience that benefits from the big screen, but most will be watching on Netflix.
Fukunaga shows Agu contrasted with the Commandant, an easily admirable figure with the confidence he’s looking for in a father figure– although it’s not overtly stated. Elba frames the Commandant as a nuanced character that has the physicality to lead groups of young boys, but we see even though his stature looms large he’s shrunk to a blade of grass in the grand scheme of the war. He lacks the skills and ingenuity to become a general. He’s merely a pawn, making Agu’s journey all the more wretched.
BEASTS OF NO NATION addresses its subjects with compassion and agency for those who have fallen prey to this deadly game. Fukunaga’s penchant for assimilating his films to a culture that many would never have thought twice about (as we saw in SIN NOMBRE) make us realize that our flat tires and trips to the grocery store maybe aren’t so bad after all.
BEASTS OF NO NATION is playing at Landmark Magnolia and is available for streaming on Netflix.