“Beasts of No Nation” Review (***½)

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Idris Elba and Abraham Attah star in “Beasts of No Nation.”

Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” is a brutally harrowing, yet utterly captivating, adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name. Set in an unspecified African country, the story is told through the eyes and meditation of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy who through the harsh realities of war, became a soldier—or more aptly, a savage war criminal.

After his family is slaughtered by rebels, Agu is adopted into a battalion comprised of children and young teenagers, helmed by a questionably-sane Commandant (Idris Elba). As the rest of these impressionable and revenge-seeking youth did before him, Agu falls in line behind his new ‘father’ and falls down a rabbit-hole of war. One filled with heroine-induced lunacy, blind obedience-driven acts of savagery, and a slow-burn toward the inevitable—they weren’t fighting the men that had murdered their families, they were becoming them.

“Beasts of No Nation” was undoubtedly a passion project for Fukunaga; who served as writer, director, and cinematographer. He knew exactly what he wanted to say, how he wanted to say it, and he wanted you to feel every second of it—and he spent seven years trying to get it right.

Was he successful? In my opinion, yes, but the screenwriting could have been tighter. Dialogue in the first act is a little trite and honestly, while tragic, we’ve seen this same first act countless times—a happy family is slaughtered, the world darkens, and revenge is sought.

Cinematography, however, soars the whole way through, as does the majority of the storytelling. Flawed, yes, but still a beautiful, engaging, story tackling harsh, psychologically-damaging realities involving children, through the eyes of a child. That’s not easy to do, and still be palpable. And even still, Fukunaga hides very little from the camera. Harsh scenes, however, are broken up by imaginative imagery, rounding the edges of the subject matter with artful balance. Most impressive, though, is how Fukunaga wields light; it’s masterful, to say the least, and every distinct manipulation of it serves the moment in the story it’s paired with. He also used it to create interpretations of reality—like say, the way a war zone, or the jungle, might look through the memory of a child.

What do mortars look like to a child? Fireworks.

It’s important to also note that Fukunaga truly anchored everything to the soul of Agu, and with that influence, every moment of visceral impact—no matter how brutal—is built artfully. It adds to our understanding of his experience, and what he learns: what friendship means when you’re that age, carrying your only friend in the world, dead on your back; how to see true motivation instead of manipulation, when the world is lies; how to use courage and strength to take responsibility for your actions; and in the end, how to comprehend everything that you’ve seen and done, and manage those demons.

“Sun? Why do you shine on this place?” —Abraham Attah as Agu.
First-time Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah (Agu) could not have made the old-soul that this little boy becomes any more believable, or triumphant. In fact, every young actor in this film—all primarily Ghanaian—gave a tremendous performance; with special mention of Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, who played Agu’s friend Strika, a boy who barely spoke a word, yet made you love him. These performances, once again, remind us of what independent studios will do, that Hollywood studios won’t do—hire actors no one has heard of, because they’re the right choice.

See exhibit “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is you need a good example of Hollywood fail.

Idris Elba (Commandant), harnessed both the charm and strength needed to win the love and respect of these young boys; all while slowly unveiling a man that is desperate, motivated by power and greed, and getting by solely on his ability to portray himself as god-like to these young boys. As the seams show, and the boys begin to see the truth of him, some of the most nuanced aspects of Elba’s performance play out—and it’s exceptional to watch.

“Beasts of No Nation” is brutal beauty, and performance gold. With less predictable dialogue and a first act that wasn’t so well-trodden, it could have been an absolute triumph. Being that this is Netflix’s first narrative feature film acquisition, it’s available right now and is absolutely worth your time.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

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