Beasts of No Nation
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
Opens October 16
On the off chance you’ve forgotten that war is hell, Beasts of No Nation delivers a three-alarm reminder, following a faction of child soldiers as they maraud across an unnamed West African country, snorting gunpowder along the way. As the film opens, school has long since closed, but young protagonist Agu (Abraham Attah) is not entirely left to his own devices—he runs with a pack of friends, and a scene of dinner-table family togetherness culminates in a fart joke. Writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga, adapting an acclaimed 2005 novel by Uzodinma Iweala, manages better once his young protagonist is faring worse. Agu, suddenly orphaned by war, gets abducted into the ranks led by the Commandant (an effective Idris Elba), eager to play larger-than-life father figure to an entire battalion, heavy-lidded under his two-starred beret. Some nauseatingly vivid sequences follow: During an initiation held deep in the forest, children climb into mock graves so that they can be reborn as armed resisters of the junta; one particular scene—in which the camera threads around the interior walls of a structure stormed by the Commandant’s boys—has some of the nightmare lucidity of the shootout from the first season of True Detective, prestige TV that did more than Fukunaga’s previous two features (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre) to establish his reputation as a high-toned stylist.
As the first original feature acquired by Netflix, premiering simultaneously on the streaming service and in Landmark theaters (many multiplex chains refused to book it altogether), Beasts will also be seen on small screens and still smaller monitors right out of the gate. It’s a striking accident that the film’s first shot is of a field framed through a hollowed-out television set; Agu and company subsequently try to interest buyers in this “imagination TV.” As the drama unfolds, though, it becomes clear that imagination is precisely the quality that Beasts itself could use more of. By declining to assign names to places and certain key people, the film keeps the political context to a minimum, but it often winds up feeling less fable-emblematic than simply under-realized. Agu’s mumbled voiceover, one of the film’s key indications of the boy’s partially intact internal life (another is his bond with a mute fellow soldier), feels too much like a postproduction afterthought; somewhat weirdly, for a movie about the tragic desensitization and disillusionment of people not yet fully formed, the most memorable non-combat sequence concerns the Commandant’s place in the rebel-army hierarchy, as he takes his boys to visit the Supreme Commander, and winds up shepherding them through one waiting room after another. All respect to Fukunaga for attempting the very difficult task of tackling this subject matter in a feature-film context, and for doing so with some degree of psychological nuance. But, still, “harrowing” as it is, Beasts of No Nation doesn’t feel filled out enough to devastate. It won’t likely haunt anyone for too long—except maybe theatrical exhibitors.