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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Review: Beasts of No Nation (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Cary Fukunaga
Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba

While the great thing about the release strategy for Beasts of No Nation, which was made available on Netflix simultaneously with its theatrical release, is that more people will be able to see it right away (because, let's face it, even if a bunch of theater chains weren't boycotting it because of it being available already on Netflix, a small budget drama about a child soldier was probably never going to get a very wide theatrical release), the unfortunate thing is that most of us will see on a small screen scenes which were made for a big screen. The story may be an intimate one, but the vistas captured by Cary Fukunaga, who takes on cinematography duties in addition to writing and directing, are truly grand. Above all, Beasts of No Nation is a stunning looking film, though it's the content, not the look, that brings it just within reach of greatness.

In an unnamed West African country torn apart by war, a young boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) lives with his family in a buffer zone. Though the war is never far away, Agu lives as normal a life as possible, playing with his friends, making friends with the soldiers who guard the zone's border, assured by his father that they're safe. When the situation changes, however, and the villagers are forced to evacuate, Agu ends up left behind with his older brother, their father and grandfather, while his mother and younger siblings are able to escape. Accused of working with the rebel forces and sentenced to immediate execution by the army, Agu sees first his father and then brother killed as he flees into the bush, narrowly escaping death himself. Hungry and alone, Agu wanders aimlessly until he's found by the rebel forces working under the Commandant (Idris Elba), who decides to recruit, rather than kill, him. As a new recruit, Agu's initiation into war is swift and brutal when the rebel battalion ambushes a convoy of vehicles and the Commandant forces Agu and Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), a boy about his age, to kill one of the captured men with a machete.

The war carries on and Agu becomes increasingly desensitized to the things that he sees and does, though through voice-over narration he expresses his fear that God will hate him for his actions. Though they're hungry and tired, Agu and the rest of the boys and young men who make up the battalion continue to push forward on the orders of the Commandant, who maintains his control of them through sexual abuse and the threat of death. Eventually, however, the Commandant is revealed to be less than the formidable terror that he at first seems to be, reduced finally to man with nothing except his delusions of grandeur and importance, having dragged his increasingly mutinous battalion out to the middle of nowhere and given them the fruitless task of digging for gold that does not exist there with the promise of sharing the riches. As the Commandant's grip begins to loosen, Agu's opportunity to flee finally catches up to his desire to do so.

Although Beasts of No Nation avoids specificity of place, preferring to give the sense that it could be any politically volatile nation in Western Africa, and even avoids taking sides in its imagined conflict (the Commandant is obviously evil, but the difference between the government army and the rebel army is negligible, as each is all too ready to slaughter everyone they come across whether they're civilian or enemy combatant), but it does achieve a high degree of specificity in terms of its protagonist. The opening stretch of the film establishes Agu's childhood idyll which, while not ideal from an objective standpoint, is nevertheless a happy period in his life as he's surrounded by family and friends, able to run around and play games and laugh, even if the presence of tanks and armed men is ever present and the sound of gunfire never far away. Once that's snatched away, Agu looses his moorings and, seen through his eyes, time becomes indistinct, battles unfold in a hazy, dream-like fashion (some of it drug induced), and the meaning of everything that happens is obscure. Agu doesn't really know what the rebels are fighting for, he just knows that he's fighting with them so that he isn't killed, and the film plants itself firmly in his mind and, through the voice over, in his thoughts which become increasingly mature as a result of the experiences that he has which accelerate the aging process even though outwardly he remains a small child.

Filmed in Ghana, Beasts of No Nation is an often visually striking film that uses the beauty of the natural world as an effective contrast against the brutality taking place within it. The film isn't just in its superficial details, though, and is grounded by strong performances that give it emotional and psychological depth. Elba is fantastic and terrifying as the Commandant, the very embodiment of the villain who believes himself to be the hero of his own story, even as he leaves a trail of shattered lives in his wake and drags his battalion after him into his own version of Heart of Darkness, coming to seem decreasingly powerful as the story goes on. Much praise has already been given to Attah, making his film debut here, but Quaye (also making his film debut) is just as deserving of praise as the mute Strika, who conveys much even though he says nothing. While Elba's performance is electrifying, it's the boys who make the film such an effective portrait of innocence lost and provide Fukunaga with the emotional center that makes Beasts of No Nation so compelling.

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