by Ken B.
The cluster of nations located in sub-Saharan Africa are known globally for many things, none of them very positive. Poverty, disease, human rights violations, crime, and corruption are aspects of daily life, and the collective force of these elements leads to an outcome which combines them all – war. Civil conflicts and political violence are a threat to many of these countries, but most of us who live far away are less than concerned about them. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation viscerally challenges our out of sight, out of mind attitude and places us directly into a fictitious civil war in an anonymous country, from the perspective of the child soldiers who are forcibly made part of quasi-military groups, commanded to commit extreme acts of violence that may permanently haunt them.
Agu (Abraham Attah) is one such person, maybe no more than eleven or twelve. A war breaks out in his home country, and only a few residents of his town are able to escape before the rebel forces descend on the area. Everyone else, Agu included, is left to fend for themselves. A guerilla troop executes the lot of his family which stayed, and he barely manages to escape. After spending a little while secluded in the forest, he is discovered by a wing of the militia, and drafted in under the control of an unnamed commandant (Idris Elba), who leads a makeshift group of boys, also about Agu’s age. He has no choice but to join them, his life thrust into danger, becoming part of a fringe rebellion whose opponents include the elected government being fought against, complete with their organized army and supported by the international community at large.
Despite the fact that Beasts of No Nation is a bit more full-on than standard classroom fare, I can definitely see the film have a bright future as a staple in high schools, a possible supplement to lessons which feature its relevant events or recent history. The movie is based on a novel by Uzodinma Iweala, and it feels like one of the more comprehensive, direct depictions of child soldiers that we’ve seen in a major feature. The emotional impact of its 137 minutes is shattering, especially when Fukunaga’s direct, matter-of-fact approach is taken into consideration. He doesn’t try to pass off this phenomenon like an isolated incident, or a subject of fictitious speculation. He crafts his work here with the knowledge that Africa accounts for 120,000 – or forty percent – of the world’s estimated number of child soldiers. While that is statistically a drop in the bucket for a continent of 1.1 billion people in total, it’s no excuse for the inhumanity of the situation.
Abraham Attah, despite having no prior acting experience, is stellar in the lead role. Perhaps the fact that he is just a kid, and not an actor, contributes to the authenticity of his performance. Rather than act, Attah reacts. While this type of naturalistic non-professional approach can sometimes have disastrous effects, it is likely to Fukunaga’s credit as well that it works out here, as he presumably guided his young star to convey emotions as realistically as possible. Attah’s work is no doubt further benefitted by Idris Elba, who gives a chilling showing as the commandant, forming a ripe cult of personality among his underaged subordinates, convincing them that his way is the only way for them to survive.
The movie is hurt by a couple of bad stylistic moves, namely a puerile score by Dan Romer, which undercuts the significance of many potentially harrowing scenes with a droning, entirely misplaced synthesizer heavy composition that harms the mood of sequences with surprising efficiency. Another is the film’s ending, which I cannot describe in depth without getting complaints of spoilers. What I will say is that while it conveys one path which is likely to be better for the audience, it negates another which, while not particularly pleasant, is also an equally likely option that would happen to real-life individuals in such a situation. But overall, the superiority of the craftsmanship and the raw power of the acting and subject matter make Fukunaga’s efforts worth the often difficult viewing that is Beasts of No Nation.