Review: Beasts of No Nation finds beauty in the horrors of war

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“Bullet is just eating everything,” says Agu (Abraham Attah), the young killing machine in Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, dragged into a war consuming his country. He’s a seasoned child soldier, and he knows the smell of death. He’s murdered grown men and women without mercy. But there’s no meaning to any of it, and no end in sight. The only way out, he observes, is death. And that truth, stated by a boy living in hell, is one of the most overwhelming realities of anything depicted in the film.

Beasts of No Nation is yet another opportunity for Netflix to cover itself in awards glory. Where prestige series Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards have both proven the streaming giant’s mettle when it comes to picking up Emmys and Globes, the Oscars race is still new territory. And the effort is paying off: having distinguished itself at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, it lands both online and in theaters today — a brazen move on Netflix’s part that resulted in a boycott from four of the country’s major theater chains and relegated it to a limited release. With powerful performances from its cast and surpassingly brilliant direction from Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation makes art out of the kind of real-world brutality Western audiences are accustomed to ignoring.

Beasts, based on author Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel of the same name, was very much a labor of love for Fukunaga, whose decisions in writing and shooting the film are a testament to the time and care that went into its production. A piece of Guerrilla filmmaking like his first feature Sin Nombre, the movie has been gestating for the better part of a decade, while Fukunaga made sure to get every element right — and while he juggled other projects. The end result is a film that gives an intimate look into life in a part of the world where thousands of children serve as armed fighters everyday. The cast is mainly composed of local actors, and Attah is far from the white lead most Hollywood films would rely on. That authenticity gives Agu’s fall and eventual salvation an immediacy that’s heartbreaking and powerful all at once.

Agu was a young boy living on the border of a war zone in his unnamed home country before his world fell apart. His narration guides the story, and he starts the film as most innocents would: filled with mischief and schoolyard concerns. He pesters his girl-crazy brother and shirks his studies, but Attah — an actor with no film experience before this role — imbues Agu with undeniable charisma and goodness. He’s disarmingly funny throughout the first act, particularly when he sells a broken "Imagination TV" to a sympathetic security officer. And once he’s created that bond with the viewer, his heartbreak is all the more visceral when his mother and younger siblings flee the village. We feel his horror when his father and older brother are killed in front of him. And we feel his thirst for vengeance when, after escaping into the bush, he’s transformed into a child soldier by the Commandant (Idris Elba), the leader of the battalion that becomes Agu’s new family.

Beasts of No Nation

Elba’s Commandant comes onto the scene as the most fearsome of warlords, but is more a cypher than the commanding presence his title implies. The character — whose real name we never learn — is a mercenary prophet, leading his band of child warriors into battle in the name of reclaiming what they lost. Elba’s performance is understated here, and unlike his followers, he’s never fully consumed by rage. It’s a powerful contrast that creates a constant feeling of tension around the character. At times, the Commandant conveys quiet menace. Other times, he seems unhinged, swept away by a war that for him is more of a religious crusade. But most of all, he’s the calm in the storm, fading somewhat into the background as Agu’s experiences in the conflict take the fore. As a result, however, the film stumbles when it tries to humanize him in the final act. So much time is spent building the Commandant up into a larger-than-life monster that when he’s revealed to be a just a broken man underneath it all, there’s a sense of betrayal that’s hard to overcome. That’s almost certainly the point, but it’s still a jarring shift from the action that came earlier.

Fukunaga was made for this

Fukunaga was made for depicting this kind of drama. The writer-director, who became a household name for his work in True Detective’s first season, is a master at making chaotic set pieces seem balletic with his camerawork, and he manages to combine the brutal realism of the subject matter with a surreal, almost mystical quality that makes the violence onscreen hit even harder.

Beasts of No Nation

In one scene, the frame goes blood red as Agu, high on "gun juice," prepares for another killing spree, otherworldly animal spirits appearing before his eyes as if out of a dream. In another, missiles fired from helicopters explode like fireworks over the jungle, lighting the night just enough to expose the blood on the ground. And in perhaps the film’s finest scene, Fukunaga echoes the beloved one-shot he pulled off in True Detective by following Agu into an enemy village, witnessing the child soldiers commit atrocity after unspeakable atrocity on the Commandant’s orders. After confusing a frightened woman for his lost mother, Agu looks up and asks God if he’s watching this horror unfold, all before killing the woman to save her from being raped. None of this is for the faint of heart, but all serve to expose how battle has all but stripped Agu of his innocence and childhood.

Beasts of No Nation is a movie that demands attention and consideration

With its beautiful cinematography and a towering performance from Attah, Beasts of No Nation is a movie that demands attention and consideration — whether it gets any from awards voters remains to be seen. Regardless of how it fares, it’s already a game changer that a film of this caliber and ambition is available to stream on the same day it opens in theaters. And even if so-called "issue movies" often fail in calling people to action, that a film about the ongoing horrors in certain parts of Africa can stream in millions of homes is a meaningful step toward people caring.

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