by Nick Anstett
There’s a moment in Director Cary Joji Fukunga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” now available for streaming on Netflix, where the bright green vegetation of the African rain forest slips into a dark, vibrant red. The violence of war eats its way into a landscape in a sequence that is tantalizing in its beauty but horrifying in its connotations, like much of the film.
Agu (Abraham Attah) is happy to spend out his days harassing his older brother, avoiding a scolding from his father, or selling scalped televisions to peace keeping forces. Civil war rages just miles away from their small village, which is already overflowing with refugees. Government forces are on a collision course with a violent group of revolutionaries. When the war careens into his life, Agu is forced to flee everything he previously held dear. Alone and with no hope for a future, his life is given a new direction when the charismatic warlord Commandant (Idris Elba) offers him a place in his army of child soldiers.
“Beasts of No Nation” is a movie of reality soaked in horror. It possesses an unflinching gaze into the heart of warfare and forces you to look along with it. Fukunga, who is most famous for his contributions to the first season of HBO’s “True Detective,” creates a stimulating feeling of dissonance by contrasting moments of violence with fluid camera work and Dan Romer’s ethereal, dream-like musical score. The result is that, on the surface level, “Beasts of No Nation” is a movie ultimately about seduction.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Elba’s Commandant. Shortly after Agu’s recruitment into his army, the Commandant gives a speech regarding their upcoming fates and the nature of war fare. With a wave of a cigar, he explains the necessity of child soldiers and for violent revolution.
Elba breathes charisma and a disturbingly father-like demeanor. He crafts the Commandant into a minor deity and his soldiers into his children, which it subtly proves to be one of the film’s most frightening moments. It is not unless the viewer is able to step back for a moment and recognize the magnitude of the abusive manipulation that the Commandant relays that the upsetting reality reveals itself.
If war and the Commandant act as the seducer, it is Attah’s Agu that finds himself drawn into the frenzy and adrenaline of war. “Beasts of No Nation” represents Attah’s first ever role in a film, and the result is nothing short of a revelation. Each scene of shock, horror, and heartbreak is conveyed with a mature subtlety that would be impressive for most trained adult actors. Fukunga’s script evolves into a narrative of whether or not there is any escape from the seduction of violence once it has occurred, and it acts as much of the emotional connective tissue for the disturbing content that peppers the film.
“Beats of No Nation’s” only true flaw in its execution comes to rest on whether it earns its bleak tone or its images of brutality. Fukunga is unflinching in his desire to show the totality of wartime cruelty, showing mass executions, rape, and child molestation amidst the battles and bloodshed. At times it threatens to transform the film into an emotional slog.
While a film centered around an African civil war and the use of child soldiers should most certainly not shy away from depicting the reality of the situation, the question becomes whether “Beasts of No Nation” has anything of value to say about the nature of such conflicts outside of its depiction. It would be as if “Schindler’s List” were merely a representation of The Holocaust without its emotional center of human perseverance and altruism.
Whether or not “Beasts of No Nation” transcends its montage of violence and despair to say something will in the end be an assessment up to the individual viewer. This acts as the film’s only real failing. In order to access the beautiful score, impressive cinematography, and enthralling performances, the viewer must see some terrible things, and one can hardly blame them for opting out.