Discovering Current Cinema: Beasts of No Nation

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“A beautiful treatment of soul-crushing atrocities.”

If you’ve been following us here at Lights, you’ll know we’ve been tracking Beasts of No Nation, the harrowing story of a child soldier in an unspecified West African country, based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala. It is streaming platform Netflix’s first feature film, signifying the rise of alternative distribution channels.

Beasts flopped in theatres – it was released on 31 screens and Netflix simultaneously – but Netflix is not concerned. “The box office… is not surprising,” The National Association of Theatre Owners’ vice president told The Hollywood Reporter, “Because Netflix had no faith in its commercial theatrical prospects and put no effort into its theatrical success… It was merely PR for the home video.”

PR as well as a necessary step to qualify the film for an Oscar nomination. There are many who believe Beasts, produced for $6 million and acquired for $12 million, is Netflix’s bid for a golden statue.

Politics aside, the film’s craft dazzles.

Director, writer, and cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga covers the action with great intent. For example, the protagonist, eight-year-old Agu, hides with his family in a shed. Passing enemies block the light streaming through bullet holes in the door, showing the danger from the family’s perspective. Once conscripted, Agu raids a building in a continuous three minute tracking shot, reminiscent of Fukunaga’s work in True Detective and just as emotionally affecting. Later, Agu navigates a trench in a scene that recalls the hellish outpost from Apocalypse Now – “Mother,” he drones in voiceover, “I can only be talking to you because God is not listening.”

We drift through the horror as through a dream, removed. Subjective perspective in the sound design and sudden changes in color grading sometimes intensify the spell, externalizing Agu’s trauma as well as his battalion’s drug-induced hallucinations. I was also struck by the number of offscreen deaths, which hit hard precisely because they’re downplayed, suggesting life is fragile and cheap in the jungle.

Beasts is filled with such memorable moments and haunting images. The breathtaking landscapes, the smart use of silhouettes, skirmishes by firelight… Fukunaga’s feature is a beautiful treatment of soul-crushing atrocities.

From Beasts of No Nation | Bleecker Street and Netflix, 2015

From Beasts of No Nation | Bleecker Street and Netflix, 2015

And it’s all grounded in the performances. Abraham Attah is brilliant as Agu, embodying the contradiction inherent in the term “child soldier” to which Fukunaga is acutely attuned. Idris Elba plays The Commandant, in charge of Agu’s battalion, a terrifying blend of patriarch and power-crazed dictator. His fall from larger-than-life leader to pawn in a political game is one of the film’s most fascinating aspects, and we watch as his “big family of strangers” wakes up to the reality of his impotence.

Of course, Agu wakes up to it, too, but he’s not the one to initiate next steps. “I’m a good follower, sir,” Agu responds when asked if he wants to lead, and follow Agu does, from beginning to end.

Perhaps my biggest reservation is the protagonist’s prevailing passivity. Granted, it makes sense – Agu must be brainwashed into a life of war crimes – yet I wonder what could be done to achieve a more active character. What if he had been the one to voice the soldiers’ discontent, inspiring everyone to part ways with The Commandant? As is, I felt for Agu, but that feeling was more for every child soldier than for Agu specifically. His lack of engagement blunted my emotional investment in his particular story.

There are a few narrative threads lost along the way, too. At one point, The Commandant favors Agu over his friend Striker. Surely this will create tension between the two and pay off later, I thought. Unless I missed a beat in the relentless march of the story, it does not.

Even so, there are some surprising twists that keep events fresh and morally complex. For example, government forces, not rebel soldiers, kill Agu’s family. Later, in an astonishing scene that epitomizes The Commandant’s battlefield charisma, Agu’s battalion “liberates” a village from oppressive government control. Neither side is good, the film seems to say. There is no black-and-white in war.

But there is coming back. Thankfully, we’re left with a glimmer of hope that suggests – contrary to The Commandant’s parting words, and sometimes to the belief of their families – that child soldiers can be children again.

Should you watch Beasts of No Nation?

Yes.

As Netflix’s first feature film, it’s an industry landmark. It’s also expertly executed, a candid and uncompromising portrayal of the sort of real world conflict we tend to read about and forget. I only wish the story absorbed us more deeply with a more articulated, active role for its lead.

Have you seen the film? What did you think? We’d love to hear your impressions in the comments below!

 Michael Koehler, with


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