Beasts of No Nation

Posted by Joel Copling on October 16, 2015

"Beasts of No Nation" approaches the fog and horrors of war with a single note: despair. This would make sense, given that war is something worthy of constant despair, but writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga (adapting Uzodinma Iweala's novel of the same name) offers no variation. The director, who also performed the film's cinematography, is a skilled visual storyteller, capturing the wilderness of the unnamed, African country in which our story is set with a harsh beauty that belies a chilling tale of child soldiers and the revolution of which they are a central part. Unfortunately, the film wallows in this despair, depicting carnage with neither less subtlety nor more nuance than a horror movie.

The child soldier in this case is Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah), a young boy who has lost both parents to the far-right, militaristic soldiers currently removing all traces of civilization from this land. Agu is forced into the wilderness, finding his path with a guerilla revolutionary army led by a commander (Idris Elba) known as "the Commandant" by those he commands. The Commandant brainwashes Agu and the other children in his employ with speeches delivered by the man as if he was a football coach. Elba's performance is calm and confident enough to unnerve, but there's little depth or complexity to this character beyond a figurehead of institutional, inspirational evil.

The real story is Attah, whose heartbreaking work here extends to some narration that only on occasion spoonfeeds the audience, instead conveying the loss of innocence through which the character goes on a journey to becoming a ruthless, merciless soldier. In one scene, framed as if the victim is from a slasher movie, Agu must murder an innocent bystander to send the message to his contemporaries that he means business. In another, he ruthlessly murders a woman as if from the exasperation of his situation. The film is a constant barrage of seeing how much suffering it can put its characters, both primary and secondary, through in an attempt to manipulate a response from the audience.

And reactionary is ultimately the only level on which Fukunaga is working here. Even simple storytelling devices are tired, from the extended montage that shows every familiar step of Agu's shift from innocent to brutal (We really need to rethink the model for this kind of device) to the aforementioned scenes of violence (which are not, with the exception of the gruesome aftermath of one fatal injury while Agu escapes from the soldiers, even all that violent, cutting away too tamely to cause any real impact or convey the sense of brutality in the region). "Beasts of No Nation" bravely reaches for moments of power it fails to achieve.

Film Information

Abraham Attah (Agu), Idris Elba (Commandant), Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye (Strika), Kurt Egyiawan (2-I-C), Jude Akuwudike (Supreme Commander Dada Goodblood), Kobina Amissah-Sam (Father), Francis Weddey (Brother), Ama K. Abebrese (Mother).

Directed and written by Cary Joji Fukunaga, based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala.

No MPAA rating.

137 minutes.

Released in select cities on October 16, 2015.