As war movies go, Cary Joji Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation is curiously light on the sort of specifics that war movies often thrive on. We rarely learn the names of the film's assorted locations, and the nature of the relationship between the two conflicting sides of the violent war depicted in the film is never clearly outlined. Assorted acronyms and titles are uttered on a regular basis, but we rarely learn what they mean. All of this is intentional. Fukunaga (who also wrote the film's screenplay, working from a book of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala) does not offer an examination of a war, but rather examines the soul of a young boy who is thrown into the middle of one. The effectiveness of this approach is considerable, and portions of the film attain a horrifying power.
The boy is Agu (Abraham Attah), who resides in a small West African village with his family. Life isn't always easy, but Agu is a happy kid with a strong mischievous streak (he has a habit of stealing things from his older brother and selling them to local soldiers). Alas, trouble is just around the corner: news arrives that the ongoing war between the government and the rebel Native Defense Force (or NDF) will soon reach the village. Agu's mother and younger siblings are able to escape, but his father, older brother and grandfather opt to stay behind. All of the men in Agu's family are killed by government forces, and Agu flees into the woods.
Within hours, Agu is found and captured by an NDF battalion commanded by a man known only as “Commandant” (Idris Elba, The Wire). Though the battalion initially contemplates killing Agu, Commandant decides to take the young boy under his wing and train him to be a soldier. “I'm going to help you kill the men who killed your father,” Commandant says. With that simple promise, he earns the boy's undying loyalty.
This is a brutal coming-of-age story, as a young man's innocence is stripped from him with violent force. We watch as he grows accustomed to the sight of battle, to the smell of dead bodies... and even to the act of killing. One of the film's most chilling scenes sees Agu tasked with slaughtering one of the NDF's prisoners. As the helpless man weeps and pleads for his life, you can almost see the pity slowly draining from Agu's eyes, replaced with a fearful desire to please his new father figure. The cheers of bloodlust, the words of encouragement and the promises that all of this slaughter will eventually mean something is just enough to extinguish the pleas of Agu's conscience.
This is Fukunaga's third feature (and his fourth major project, as he also helmed the entire first season of True Detective), and it confirms that he is both a serious talent and a chameleon. None of his projects feel remotely alike, but they're all marked by strong characterization, striking imagery and an immediately compelling sense of atmosphere. However, it's worth noting that this movie feels a tad less unique than Jane Eyre or Sin Nombre: Beasts of No Nation often finds the writer/director doing his best Terrence Malick impression, with whispered narration in which Agu offers quiet confessions to his long-lost mother, scenes that pay as much attention to the lush natural beauty that surrounds the characters as to the characters themselves and music (penned by Dan Romer, whose music for the similarly-titled Beasts of the Southern Wild was so enchanting) that offers fairly blatant echoes of Hans Zimmer's oft-imitated score for The Thin Red Line.
Still, Fukunaga does a better Malick impression than a lot of people do, and it's impossible to deny the film's effectiveness. It becomes particularly gripping whenever Elba's Commandant is onscreen, as the actor brings an enormous amount of dangerous charisma to the role. Commandant regards himself not only as a leader, but as a father, and he has a knack for inspiring the sort of fierce devotion that most other military leaders can only dream of. This is the sort of character Klaus Kinski might have played a few decades ago; a madman who tackles the challenges in front of him with a religious fervor. There are times when Commandant feels more like a pentecostal preacher than a military man, filling his boys with the spirit of killing via fiery inspirational speeches and placing his head against their chests to listen to their heartbeats before sending them into battle.
The film is at its boldest during these battle scenes, briefly romanticizing war for the sake of putting us inside the head of Agu and his young comrades. Scenes of horror are accompanied by visually stunning imagery, and the film creates a genuine sense of unease by thrilling us on a cinematic level while confronting us on a moral level. That feeling fades as the film proceeds, though, as Agu's hunger, frustration and sorrow begin to accumulate and counter his loyalty to Commandant.
If you approach Beasts of No Nation expecting to learn something about the complicated political climate of West Africa, you'll come away disappointed. This movie doesn't aim to teach us anything about global politics, but to remind us of the human cost of war. Everyone is aware of the body count, but it's more difficult to measure the toll a war takes on the soldiers who are trapped in it – particularly when those soldiers are children. Agu is a good person, but when war takes everything he treasures away from him, it doesn't take much to convince him that killing is the answer. As Commandant puts it: “All of you, who were never listened to before, who have seen your loved ones gunned down, you have something that speaks for you now.”
Beasts of No Nation
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 137 minutes
Release Year: 2015