Cast: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation, adapted from Uzodinma Iweala's highly praised novel, is a film which seeks to be a grandiose descent into the chaos of war, but it plays more like a formal stunt in which Fukunaga draws attention away from the geopolitical and interpersonal elements of the story in order to show off his filmmaking chops. It's setting is an unnamed African country, it's war an ambiguous one, and even though there's precedent for this particular milieu, there's something utterly false about the self-congratulatory framing of historical atrocities here. The "Beasts" of the film's title, therefore, isn't simply a representation of the loss of innocence or the warping of a child's mind, but rather a long-held believe in the primitivism of certain types of people becoming desensitized by the horrors of war. Truthfully, the film lacks both the global context as well as the psychological complexity needed in order to make it anything more than a flashy bid for auteurist status.
Centering around a young boy named Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah), whose seemingly idyllic childhood is shattered once rouge factions invade his village and kill off most of his family, Beasts of No Nation doesn't waste much of it's 137 minute running time before descending into utter depravity. Captured deep within the jungle by a ramshackle battalion under the wing of the hulking Commandant (Idris Elba), Agu quickly falls prey to the menacing charms of this deluded monster, and the film, full of shock and awe, takes on the age-old tale of an innocence lost wrapped in a hallucinatory arthouse veneer. Though superficially told from Agu's perspective (complete with poetic Malick-esque voiceover narration), Fukunaga doesn't really trust the audience, feeling the need to keep everything at a detached remove. We never really get that stomach-churning feeling of childhood being stolen through blood, smoke, and carnage because Agu (despite Attah's deftly naturalistic performance) remains a passive observer to the reprehensible effects of violence. Elba's maniacal overlord, meanwhile, is little more than a classic substitute father figure who both abuses and looks after his child warriors. Elba certainly brings a warped charisma and commanding physical presence to the role, but the character is a blank slate; a man blitzed by the metaphysical torment of never-ending bloodshed who will predictably lose both his power as well as his followers before all is said and done.
There's a long-standing tradition of war films which take a subjective, impressionistic approach to their subject matter. Terrance Malick's The Thin Red Line, for example, is a meditative dirge which places omniscient voices inside the minds of nameless soldiers overwhelmed by man's inhumanity to man. Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece Apocalypse Now, meanwhile, showcases the very act of war as a hallucinogenic state of mind; complete with heightened sound design and an atmospheric synth-driven score. Beasts of No Nation perhaps tries to approximate Coppola's vision in some senses, but fails to go beyond the stylistic and into the realm of the personal. Fukunaga's contrived steadicam shots, arty slow-mo, and wallowing in the "poetic beauty" of violence simply calls into question why this particular story is being told in the first place. Beyond showing that illogical wars occur all the time between factions which really aren't sure why they are fighting and illustrating the morally heinous act of training children for battle, the film has no instructive purpose. When Uga is forced to kill a defenseless man because he, as Elba's Commandant claims, "killed your family", Fukunaga's camera lingers on the image of the skull being split open in a kind of faux-horror movie angle, complete with specks of blood staining the camera's lens. Later, after Agu and his band of brothers take to the jungle for battle, Fukunaga changes the film's color palette so that it resembles a film school graduate's idea of the drug-like madness of war. Such affectations don't draw us into the psychological or emotional state of Agu or anyone else involved. They simply exist to showcase Fukunaga's keen sense of choreography, sound, and movement; playing as little more than a calling card for future projects rather than enriching this one.
Treating the senseless of fictional skirmishes taking place in an area of the globe where things like this actually happen as a series of meticulously crafted sensory vignettes could have worked had Fukunaga showcased some understanding of the people he was depicting. But there are no people here, really. These are simply bodies to be shuffled around in the thick of the jungle and then disposed of. Sure, war does that--it makes individuality irrelevant--but even our supposed protagonist Agu is used merely as a prop in order to aestheticize the fog of war. Simply peeling back the curtain and showing us horrendous acts of barbarism committed in Africa has no overriding meaning if context is shunted and psychological insight is discarded. It simply becomes; no matter how well photographed, an artificial designer advertisement for what war does to men, and in this case, boys.