Critics’ Connection: Beasts of No Nation

Beasts of No Nation still

Beasts of No Nation is the fictional first-hand account of Agu, a creative, intelligent figure who, following a brutal separation from his family, ends up fighting for a squadron of child soldiers as civil war and genocide rage in the unnamed nation around them.
Starring Abraham Attah (Agu), Idris Elba (The Commandant).  Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, Written by Cary Joji Fukunaga (screenplay), Uzodinma Iweala (novel).  Source/Photo Source:  The Film Stage.

What the critics are saying about Beasts of No Nation:

The Verge:  With powerful performances from its cast and surpassingly brilliant direction from Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation makes art out of the kind of real-world brutality Western audiences are accustomed to ignoring.  Beasts, based on author Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel of the same name, was very much a labor of love for Fukunaga, whose decisions in writing and shooting the film are a testament to the time and care that went into its production. The end result is a film that gives an intimate look into life in a part of the world where thousands of children serve as armed fighters every day. The cast is mainly composed of local actors, and Attah is far from the white lead most Hollywood films would rely on. That authenticity gives Agu’s fall and eventual salvation an immediacy that’s heartbreaking and powerful all at once.

Agu was a young boy living on the border of a war zone in his unnamed home country before his world fell apart. His narration guides the story, and Attah — an actor with no film experience before this role — imbues Agu with undeniable charisma and goodness. We feel his horror when his father and older brother are killed in front of him. And we feel his thirst for vengeance when, after escaping into the bush, he’s transformed into a child soldier by the Commandant (Idris Elba), the leader of the battalion that becomes Agu’s new family.  Elba’s Commandant comes onto the scene as the most fearsome of warlords, but is more a cypher than the commanding presence his title implies. The character — whose real name we never learn — is a mercenary prophet, leading his band of child warriors into battle in the name of reclaiming what they lost. Elba’s performance is understated here, and unlike his followers, he’s never fully consumed by rage. It’s a powerful contrast that creates a constant feeling of tension around the character.

With its beautiful cinematography and a towering performance from Attah, Beasts of No Nation is a movie that demands attention and consideration — whether it gets any from awards voters remains to be seen.  See full review at The Verge.

Roger Ebert:  The movie immediately puts us in the shoes (and sometimes bare feet) of its hero, eight year old Agu (Abraham Attah) in a country turned upside-down by revolution.  The main story finds Agu being protected and trained by a man known only as The Commandant (Idris Elba).  The Commandant is an unholy combination of a battlefield commander, a drill sergeant, a football coach, a decadent older brother, and the patriarch that a lot of these boys either never had or recently lost to.  The boys adore The Commandant because they think he’s teaching them to be men, specifically warrior-men, but he’s really teaching them to be murderers, thieves, rapists and torturers who wrap their bloodlust and greed in ideology that seems half-understood when it’s comprehensible at all.

The final section of the film, which sees Agu witnessing the limits of The Commandant’s power and starting to see through him, is probably the strongest; Elba, who has a magnificent glowering magnetism throughout “Beasts” but never relies on it exclusively, is never more fascinating than when The Commandant’s seeming omnipotence is whisked away like the curtain which reveals that the great and powerful Oz is just a man.

And from start to finish, the movie is imaginatively made.  The filmmaker makes bold choices.  He thinks about where to put people in the frame, how to light them, and how to move the camera, not merely to tell the story and showcase the dialogue and performances, but to boil a moment down to a single image.  While nobody should expect a film on this topic to be bloodless, there are moments when the movie seems to lose its grip on sense, and shade away from carefully-calibrated violence into imagery that feels less horrific than horror-movie-like—such as the way a child soldier’s machete blade splits an innocent man’s skull open in a close-up as he screams.  Too much of this kind of thing, and you might start to wonder if the filmmaker’s virtuoso inventiveness is overwhelming his commitment to realism.  Once you’ve gone down this skeptical road you keep noticing more and more things about “Beasts” that feel somehow untrustworthy, or at least not immediately defensible. And it’s a short hop from there to the realization that this is the second recent, highly acclaimed film about dark-skinned people not directed by an African or an African-American that has the word “Beasts” in the title. After that, you might realize that the Western commercial cinema almost never tells stories of Africa, except to sentimentalize European colonialism or show the depths of depravity of which Africans are capable.  See the full review at Robert Ebert.

The Atlantic:  Fukunaga’s script follows a West African boy, Agu (Abraham Attah), who’s torn from his family by militants and eventually inducted into a mercenary unit by a charismatic, unnamed Commandant (Idris Elba). This is a film much more concerned with the business of indoctrination than the details of whatever conflict Agu is involved in. That’s where Beasts of No Nation both succeeds and fails: The ambiguity of the plot allows it to tell a more universal story, but the powerful vagueness hurts the film’s ability to do more than straightforwardly depict the brutal life of a child soldier.

Attah is incredible in his film debut, never quite losing Agu’s childish gait but visibly dulling the light in his eyes as he sinks deeper into his new world. Elba exudes his typical magnetism in the film’s first half, playing the Commandant as not a psychotic general barking orders, but a charming, often frightening father figure who sometimes taps Agu on the head, reminding him that he spared his life. As the civil war continues and the Commandant’s grasp on authority slips, that’s where Elba truly comes into form, looking vulnerable and sad without quite shedding his natural charisma.

Fukunaga is a brilliant visual stylist who has always managed to maintain a story’s humanism through the most bravura sequences, and that’s one of the biggest strengths of Beasts of No Nation.  But coupled with that is a frustrating lack of detail on what’s happening or why, placing the audience in the same indoctrinated state as Agu. Beasts tells a broadly traumatic story and tells it well, but lacks the kinds of specifics that could make it a truly memorable film.  See the full review at The Atlantic.

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