Beasts of No Nation
As a young boy in Africa, Agu (Abraham Attah) spends his days relishing his childhood innocence and simple faith. However, the threat of civil war slowly creeps into Agu's young life and he soon finds himself fighting under the leadership of Commandant (Idris Elba). Agu's faith and innocence are then challenged by the atrocities he witnesses and commits as a young rebel soldier.
September 3, 2015 (Venice Film Festival)
October 16, 2015 (Netflix and Limited Release)
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Writer: Cary Joji Fukunaga (Based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala)
Cast: Idris Elba, Kurt Egyiawan, Abraham Attah
Genre: War, Drama
Rating: No Rating
I had high hopes for this movie despite the fact that it’s most likely off the radar for the typical moviegoer. I had just finished watching the excellent (but adult-oriented) first season of True Detective and was excited about the prospect of being able to watch more of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s work behind the camera, so my expectations for Beasts of No Nation was, nevertheless, a bit high. But like True Detective before it, Beasts of No Nation blew my expectations out of the water, once again due in large part to Fukunaga’s direction.
Agu (Abraham Attah) is a young boy from Africa who spent his days living and enjoying his childhood innocence. When civil war reaches home, Agu’s life is changed forever when he loses everything he knows and is forced to fight as a young soldier under the leadership of a warlord known as “Commandant” (Idris Elba).
Violence: Beasts of No Nation is a film that is brutal in its depiction of violence. Its imagery is often graphic with many brutal on-screen killings, oftentimes committed by the children themselves. The violence works in the context of the film, but it will no doubt detract many viewers.
Language/Crude Humor: The film contains strong adult language.
Sexual Content/Nudity: The film depicts a brief scene of rape, some brief nudity on a TV screen at one point later in the film, and some suggestive scenes that hint at child molestation. There is also a male character on-screen who is shown full-frontal.
Drug/Alcohol Use: There are scenes where young characters are shown partaking in heavy drug use and under-aged drinking.
Spiritual Content: One of the main themes in Beasts of No Nation is the topic of sin and faith. The main character often makes references to God and his own salvation. It’s a film that asks a lot of heavy theological questions (but more on that in the review below).
Positive Content: It’s hard to point out positive content in the film since it focuses on the subject of child soldiers and the suffering they witness and commit. While I do not want to spoil the film, there is a bit of a silver lining in the end.
Negative Content: If you’ve gotten this far into the review, by now you already have an idea that Beasts of No Nation is not a film for the faint of heart. It tackles a heavy subject matter without censor. Much of the content found in this film is controversial, but sincere. It isn’t afraid to hit its themes with uncompromising honesty.
It is very clear that this Fukunaga has a gift that is rarely seen in movies these days. Fukunaga imbues Beasts of No Nation with a universal atmosphere that is typically seen in David Fincher films.
The set-pieces and environments tell a story along with the characters on-screen giving the film a living, breathing texture. During the film’s opening scenes, we see Agu lost in innocence as he runs around playing with his friends, annoying his older brother, and causing mischief around his community. He also is shown attending school, eating dinner with his family, and even attending church service and worshiping God.
There is a surprising amount of lighthearted humor found in these early scenes that help to establish Agu’s story and character arc, but even in these early scenes the film hints at the looming civil war through television and radio broadcasts heard in the background and soldiers being posted around Agu’s hometown. There is an underlying tension underneath the playful banter, and by all means this is only used to ease the viewer’s mindset before hell is literally broken loose on the young protagonist.
Newcomer Abraham Attah handles his role with a profound sense of maturity and gravitas that is not typically found in a lot younger actors. Attah’s Agu is presented as a typical child at first, no different than one you may find playing with his friends at your local park on a normal day’s stroll. But it is not until later on in the film when Agu is forced to fight as a rebel that we we begin to see a more complex character flourish.
His innocence replaced with anger, sadness, and an inner struggle for existentialism that is often presented as off-screen narration in the form of prayers as to why God has allowed him to suffer evil, and in turn, commit evil acts himself. The film works as a Heart of Darkness-styled tale that sees a pure individual reduced to a crushed soul. It is difficult and heartbreaking to watch as Agu slowly descends into an antihero type, often participating in actions that demonize him even further.
Even during these times when the film antagonizes Agu, you can’t help but to be sympathetic to his character and wonder if he’ll ever find an escape from his torment. Agu is a role that deserves attention and Abraham Attah deserves the utmost praise for his efforts and commitment to what is undoubtedly a difficult role to balance. Call me crazy, but Attah is so profound in his performance that it is literally Oscar-worthy.
Idris Elba is one of the best actors in the game, and in Beasts of No Nation he puts on another fantastic performance in the role of Commandant, the leader of the battalion of rebels. Elba is an intimidating presence on-screen and carries a king-like aura that is felt by his loyal followers who believe him to be an invincible god of war.
Commandant is a man who will take nothing less than his desire for victory no matter the cost. The story quickly joints Commandant with Agu in a variety of scenes where we get to witness a more personal and vulnerable side of Commandant. His role of commander changes tunes into a father who desires the best (or in this case, worse?) from his proverbial son in Agu. It is during these scenes when we get to see Elba and Attah do some of their best chemistry work together and where we find the heart and, ultimately, the reward of Beasts of No Nation.
We also see a colorful cast of characters along the dark journey like the tough, cannibalistic silent-type in Strika, Agu’s best friend and a particular rebel who battles in the nude (most likely a reference to real-life Liberian warlord, General Butt-Naked who has since become a Pentecostal minister since the end of the Liberian civil war in the early 1990’s).
I really thought about it for a long time, and there really isn’t much I can find wrong with this film. However, this being Christian review, I do need to call out the fact that Beasts of No Nation is a very strong film, in both image and in theme. Audiences who are sensitive or are easily convicted will most assuredly have a difficult time processing much of the content on screen, especially during an early scene when Agu claims his first kill in bloody fashion.
It is a scene that manages to be both graphic, shocking, and disturbing, but nevertheless presents the themes of the loss of innocence and family with boldness and sets the stage for much of the carnage to come. There is also a lot of substance abuse (both drug and alcohol) from the young cast (there is one scene in the film that uses a heavy amount of color correction to show off Agu’s mental state after some drug use that is particularly impressive).
I struggled with the kind of score to give Beasts of No Nation. Was I wrong for thinking it was as good as it was? I remember sitting in my seat as the credits rolled and being overcome by the feeling of awe. I went to bed that night and woke up the next morning still thinking about what I had just experienced.
There is a scene in the film where the rebels are marching down a dirt road when a small convoy of press reporters look on in fear, amazement, and helplessness. Throughout the film as we slowly see the demise of our characters, we can’t help but to be in the same position, where we feel the need to make a difference, but are powerless to do so.
It is like watching a child being lowered into an abyss while having your hands tied, but yet, there is a small sense of hope in the midst of it all. While it could have just as easily become a bit exploitative, the reality of children becoming victims of war is an ever-present reality in our world and Beasts of No Nation handles the subject matter with a clarity and understanding that isn’t typically seen in similarly typed movies.
True Detective’s first season proved that director Cary Joji Fukunaga was someone capable of bringing brilliance into our homes, and with his latest efforts Fukunaga only seems to reinforce this notion. There’s simply no denying the fact that Beasts of No Nation is a brutal, beautiful, and an unforgettable piece of filmmaking.
+ Idris Elba and Abraham Attah
+ Fukunaga's brilliant direction
+ Uncompromising in its depiction of subject matter
+ Beautiful cinematography
– Not for the faint of heart