starring Idris Elba, Richard Pepple, Ama Abebrese, Abraham Attah
screenplay by Cary Fukunaga, based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala
directed by Cary Fukunaga
by Walter Chaw A couple of days removed and I'm still not able to shake the scene where child soldier Agu (the amazing Abraham Attah) thinks he's been reunited with his mother, finds out he's mistaken, and metes out mercy/justice/betrayal in a sequence of events that ends with him standing on a box to peer out a window. He's a child. One of many in a roving platoon of fighters led by red-eyed Commandant (Idris Elba) through a nameless African country, wreaking havoc in a nameless conflict. Cary Fukunaga's adaptation of Nigerian-born Uzondinma Iweala's debut novel is less politics than survey history of the transcendental war film. It's more wise about how something like this should look, in other words, than how it should feel, and the epiphany one has while watching it isn't that this kind of thing happens in the world all the time, across centuries and continents, but that Beasts of No Nation looks a lot like Come and See before it looks a lot like The Thin Red Line before, finally, it looks a lot like Apocalypse Now. Since we're comparing things, Kim Nguyen's War Witch (Rebelle) is the more powerful child-soldier film--mainly because it's about something other than the abomination of using children in war. Children in war as an abomination isn't a controversial stand. If that's all you have to say, well, it's not like I'm not listening, but I'm not impressed.
What is impressive about Beasts of No Nation is that it's completely uncompromising. There are moments in it of violence and atrocity I'll probably always remember. Agu's initiation into the Commandant's army involves the machete execution of a captured soldier. It's powerful, amplified by the fact that at no time during the course of the picture could I discern one group from another; one ideology from the other. The battle scenes are harrowing because it's impossible to figure out who's firing on whom or why. It seems an evocation of Agu's confusion. The first few minutes of the film see him at play, trading an "imagination TV" to friendly soldiers stationed at his village for a stack of army rations that he distributes among his friends. If it's all a little too bucolic, it speaks to Fukunaga's bipolarity. He is either all doom or all syrup. (Note the disastrous epilogue of his otherwise relentlessly grim season of "True Detective".) When the rebels or the army--let's just say the bad guys--come to the village after his mother and little sister have fled, the chaos feels real and the sudden loss is palpable. To Fukunaga's credit, Beasts of No Nation will never be even remotely light again.
Agu's capture by Commandant's men in the forest leads to the first of several extraordinary moments for Elba, establishing himself here as an actor of the first rank. He scolds one of his soldiers for underestimating the usefulness of "boys" as weapons of war. The course through which Elba steers Commandant is tricky and wholly unexpected. He is a commanding physical presence, primarily; then a father figure; then a serial abuser; then, in a scene where he's called before his own superior, he's insecure, frightened, ultimately vengeful. His last scenes, as he tries to create his own nation in the middle of an area devastated by civil war, are very much Kurtz in his compound. He's allowed a final moment of madness. Elba is absolutely in control of this performance. His Commandant is nuanced, complex. He's a monster of opportunity. There are times when it's possible to glimpse the person he might have been without war. But war has allowed him to indulge the worst of himself, even as it exploits the best.
I think of Agu bonding with another child soldier, Strika (Emmanuel "King King" Nii Adom), after they've hacked someone to death by the side of a road. Agu says something kind and Strika, who is mute, hands him the stick that he's been chewing on. Then Agu says something a child would say and Strika takes the stick back. There aren't enough moments like this--of keen human observation and unobtrusive filmmaking that suggest Fukunaga could possibly be as good with people as he is with striking tableaux. The feeling of Beasts of No Nation's environments is entirely authentic. His characters benefit from a miraculous cast of non-actors and Elba. A late scene where Agu, loaded down with rifles and ammunition boxes, walks through red clay trenches, in ankle-deep standing water, is a NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC-quality documentation of alien lands and terrible situations. The problem is that I felt bad for Agu, but I never felt empathy for him. I didn't connect with his plight except in a basic, Hey, that's too bad the world is so unbelievably fucked sort of way. I guess what I'm saying is that I didn't learn anything from Beasts of No Nation I didn't already know. It seems like an awful lot of work for that.