This review originally ran during our coverage of TIFF 2015.
As the first feature film to be acquired for distribution by Netflix, Beasts of No Nation is only partly on-brand for the streaming service. Following the same “first you get the prestige, then you get the viewers” philosophy that guided the platform’s development of original television, Beasts of No Nation will be a likely awards contender. It features dependably stunning direction and cinematography from Cary Joji Fukunaga, and an impressive supporting performance from Idris Elba. More importantly, Beasts of No Nation is just an exceptionally well-made and absorbing film.
But it also makes for a surprising choice of premiere material, given that Beasts of No Nation features a mostly African cast, and deals with extremely grim subject matter. For Fukunaga (adapting Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel), it’s the chance to establish a presence in international filmmaking, or discover blind spots in his renowned visual eye. Because it’s the story of a child soldier losing himself to a war he doesn’t understand, there was always going to be the risk of Beasts of No Nation exploiting geopolitics or gross characterizations for dramatic gain. That Fukunaga mostly avoids such pitfalls is a testament to his skills as a sensitive storyteller, not just crafter of evocative imagery.
Aside from the brief presence of Nigerian peacekeeping forces, there’s little in the way of geographical grounding to Beasts of No Nation. First-time Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah stars as Agu, the middle child in a family of five that’s largely unaffected by the civil war raging outside their protected village. Agu’s cheery home life is sometimes only a few kernels shy of being totally cornball, but the heavy dose of early sweetness is intentional.
When both sides of the conflict come crashing down on Agu’s neutral village, he’s separated from his mother, and sees his father and brother gunned down in front of him. The greater why of these circumstances is irrelevant; they don’t matter to Agu, so they shouldn’t matter to us. When a guerilla battalion captures him, Agu is filled with fear and despair. But he finds purpose, like many other victims of the conflict, under the guidance of the battalion’s Commandant (Elba), a charismatic warlord who fosters devotion through discipline, and promises a better life earned through bloodshed.
Even considering Agu’s age, and the things he must do in order to survive, the biggest potential problem facing Beasts of No Nation isn’t that it end up being too dark – quite the opposite. By removing any broader political context from the story, Fukunaga has essentially made a boy’s adventure story, just one that’s set in a modern day war. Elba plays the Commandant with the malicious swagger of a pirate king, salutes and shanties providing the backbone for his chain of command. Agu’s induction into the militia is harsh, and the real sacrifice only begins when he’s armed in the field. But a miserable existence such as his, when shared, breeds camaraderie and a sense of belonging.
Fukunaga’s greatest, and most difficult responsibility is to maintain the humanity of his characters as they do terrible things, while not glorifying their specific actions. Fukunaga the showman can get in the way of this aim: a striking use of colour correction and a flowing long take bury the nightmare of the drama under a gloss of “cool” technique. More often, though, Beasts of No Nation is crafted so as to consciously deprive the action of fetishistic appeal, romanticizing neither war, hyper-masculinity, or any overlap therein.
Nowhere is that more apparent than when Agu and the Commandant lead the taking of a contested bridge midway through the film. The sequence is terrifying for how effectively it rouses your hope they will succeed, and your feeling of triumph when it looks like they will – only to cut to an aftermath that focuses on what’s been lost along the way.
If Beasts of No Nation isn’t as immediately gripping in its second half as it is in the first, that’s because Fukunaga tries to humanize more than just the one orphan child we’re initially meant to care about. His dialogue is often simple (and isn’t aided by narration ripped straight from The Thin Red Line), but Agu’s transformation is deftly conveyed by Attah, who can turn a pat closing monologue into the powerfully cathartic thesis statement Fukunaga’s been building to.
That Beasts of No Nation looks as incredible as it does is no surprise. Fukunaga shoots war scenes with intense immediacy, but is equally capable of injecting playfulness into the story during its quieter moments. And that’s what Beasts of No Nation is: a story. There’s no website link before the credits and no mention of a current conflict similar to the one portrayed in the film. It’s a work of fiction, but one realized by Fukunaga and his actors so that real empathy and understanding can be found in a world of madness and despair.
Beasts of No Nation is a harshly beautiful contradiction, an unsparingly bleak portrait of war that does better than most at humanizing the people fighting it.