Summary: The journey of a child soldier in an unnamed African country.
Once in a while, I give sky high marks and A’s to movies. If I lose track of time, it’s a good sign and these are typically works I get “lost” in. Ones that immerse you in the subject matter, acting, story, environment, technical aspects- it can be one or a combination of these things. Beasts of No Nation has them all. The third feature film by director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre, and HBO’s True Detective) was a 7-year passion project and the result, while heavy in content, is absolute genius. As I do with most second viewings, I was watching for technical aspects. Unlike most second viewings, I rewound several scenes more than once because it’s so easy to get absorbed in the characters and story.
I’m still blown away by how good it is and I consider it one of the best movies of the decade. I hate to bring up old news, but I still can’t wrap my head around its Oscar shutout. Regarded as one of the best films of 2015, Beasts of No Nation was left out of the Oscar race, but received awards at almost every other gathering (most notably, Idris Elba’s role). It’s speculated this was due to its immediate distribution on Netflix instead of release in traditional theaters, which is just petty and emblematic of old guys yelling, “You didn’t distribute in the traditional way! How dare you not kiss up to me!” While in the grand scheme of things awards don’t mean much, it was wholly disappointing to see something not only meaningful but well-executed in the “arts” industry be overlooked for such political reasons.
I’m trying not to give too many details here because really, the whole movie should be watched in full for the appropriate effect. The central plot follows Agu (a stunning debut by then-newcomer Abraham Attah) and the aftermath of his village’s decimation, a victim in the crosshairs of the government’s soldiers and local rebels. He stumbles upon a band of local soldiers (boys/men of all ages) led by the Commandant (Idris Elba), who immediately takes Agu under his wing and trains him to be one of his own.
It’s a heavy movie, drenched in war and blood against an otherwise serene backdrop of the unspecified African jungle. Shot entirely on location with real former child soldiers, there are no shields or gentle handlings of content in Beasts of No Nation. We see Agu grow up before our very eyes and each experience that molds him. While there are many horrifying things we witness, perhaps the most terrifying aspect is how gently the movie slips Agu from childhood into manhood within the span of a few weeks and how simple it is for him to turn to the Commandant for guidance. Still, the movie never fails to remind us that Agu is a child, making it all the more effective and heartbreaking. Fukunaga makes it quite easy to fall in love with Agu, drawing on family values and childhood games in establishing scenes and focusing on his age and innocence, providing later scenes with even more contrast. It also shows notes of compassion and humanity: while Agu’s idolization of the Commandant is obviously disturbing, it’s also extremely understandable.
Fukunaga’s precise direction is tangible and in more violent scenes, overwhelming; in a rare feat, the film depicts graphic content without a sense of oversaturation or gratuity. The guy really knows how to burn an image into your brain and it shows how much power cinema has when it’s done with intention. There are several brilliant sequences that seem to fly by because the film just wraps you up with the subject matter without noticing the tracking, editing, and framing- which are executed so well. There are almost too many scenes to note here: the bridge scene is probably the most famous, as Elba “blesses” his soldiers before sending them off in his name. Or the scene where Agu takes his first kill. Or a four-minute tracking shot through a building. And sound is used so well here. Many compliments to Dan Romer’s Nine Inch Nails-esque score, which provides a pure, dreamlike quality to the more violent scenes and probably could not be achieved using a traditional John Williams orchestration. The quietness of the score echoes Agu’s numbness, even detachment, to what’s going on around him.
One of my favorite things about Fukunaga’s work is the delicate balance between the dialogue and the quiet, really letting the actors do their jobs over minimal conversation. With the right actors, it gives the characters’ depth and more emotions conflict to play with. As if this blog hasn’t praised him enough: Elba is so good here, specifically with his tone and cadence, completely shedding anything that makes him a likable candidate for James Bond. And while the argument could be made that Fukunaga’s past work was carried by talents of Woody Harrelson and Michael Fassbender, Attah was discovered on a soccer field at the age of 13. Attah- wow. While Elba does the heavy lifting with conversation, Attah is the one that makes us feel, emoting more with his chin than most actors can do with their entire bodies. He has a bright future in the acting world and we are all winners because of it.
What I really love about Beasts of No Nation is that there’s so much fluidity and little niches of detail that tie everything together. There’s something that leaves the viewing thinking when the credits roll, whether it’s technical value, social commentary, or simply a young boy growing up. There’s a lot to be said without beating us over the head with the subject matter and it provokes intellectual conversation about not just the story, but its content. Beasts of No Nation is cinema and “good art” at its finest.