Mark Reviews Movies

Beasts of No Nation


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Cast: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Emmanuel "King King" Nii Adom Quaye, Kurt Egyiawan, Jude Akuwudike, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Francis Weddey, Ama K. Abebrese

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 2:16

Release Date: 10/16/15 (limited; Netflix)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 16, 2015

The most alarming aspect of Beasts of No Nation, a chilling portrait of a child soldier in an unnamed African country ravaged by civil war, is its sense of inevitability. There's a cold, hard logic to the progression of the movie's central character—from a relatively carefree boy, who plays games of shrewd imagination with his friends and wonders if and why girls are looking at him, to a killer. It should, by any stretch of our belief in the common decency of humankind, be unimaginable that someone so innocent could turn in such a way. Writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga makes the transformation fully comprehensible, to the point that we realize there is no other way that this boy's story could have turned.

What's startling about the way Fukunaga explains it is in what he doesn't do. Throughout the movie, Agu (Abraham Attah, a non-professional actor who gives a raw, devastating performance), the boy in question, provides narration about his experience. That narration doesn't explain a thing about his actions. In fact, it does quite the opposite.

When we hear his voice echo over the scene, Agu is typically praying—searching for some answer or acknowledgement from a higher power that seems to have deserted him. He does not understand what he is doing and barely considers asking why he is doing it. He is, after all, just a child who has not even reached his teenage years. If we have difficulty understanding why this is happening, how could we possibly expect this boy to have the answers?

Fukunaga (adapting the novel by Uzodinma Iweala) does explain it to us quite clearly, through horrific scenes of physical and psychological violence. Agu must endure this, because he has no other choice.

At the start, the boy lives in a village under threat from government and rebel forces that are fighting for control of the country. As government soldiers draw near, Agu misses a chance to leave his home. They execute his family, and it's the rebels who capture him.

There is no good side to this fight (Vehicles from the United Nations sit in the background or pass through the frame, offering no support of any kind). Both sides have official-sounding names and acronyms, but regardless of which side wins this civil war, we determine that the country will remain unchanged (It's cyclical, considering the current government formed after a military coup of another official-sounding political group with yet another acronym).

That is part of the rebel army's twisted recruitment technique. There simply is no other option. It's either be killed by government forces under suspicion of being a rebel or join the rebels under threat of being killed for refusing.

The commander of this particular battalion of rebel fighters is played by Idris Elba. It's a terrifying performance in how matter-of-fact and strangely charismatic the character is. He sees himself as a legitimate, deserving military leader, and everything he does stems from sense of legitimacy. The commandant, as his soldiers call him, provides Agu a temporary promise of survival and a promise of eventual vengeance upon the people who destroyed his family—basic and primal needs.

Fukunaga follows the brainwashing routines and rituals of training, as Agu is taught that he will only be fed if he succeeds at some task. These boys will only become soldiers if they can take a beating with clubs (One boy falls to the blows and has his throat slit just outside of the other recruits' view). A religious ritual, performed with the boys under the influence of some narcotic, guarantees their divine protection in battle, as long as they please that divine presence by remaining obedient to their commandant.

The movie's most horrendous scene comes in Agu's final rite of passage, as the commandant orders him to execute an alleged government soldier with a machete. The resulting act of violence is appalling, but it's the build up to it in which the true horror lies. Fukunaga keeps the camera close on the faces of the pleading man, who is clearly innocent of the commandant's allegation, and Agu, who gradually realizes that there is only one way that this scenario will end with him surviving and tries to prepare himself for the cost to his soul. In a later scene, he determines that killing a woman being raped is as merciful as he can be now.

There is only so much of this we can take in before the movie starts to feel like a repetitive exercise in despair. Fukunaga avoids that slide into utter hopelessness for a while by way of precise examination of Agu's change. That only lasts so long, and despite the movie's unwavering dedication to the boy's point of view, the commandant somehow becomes a more important character to the story's later parts. One supposes that's inevitable when the central character becomes a constant, while the commandant undergoes his own substantial transformation.

It's Agu's story that needs to be told, so that also might be why Beasts of No Nation falters as it approaches its solution-less resolution. That epilogue returns squarely to Agu's continuing plight, but while its refusal to provide clear-cut answers (or any, for that matter) is as honest as anything else here, it is, on a dramatic level, too little and too late.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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