Beasts of No Nation features solid film-making and good performances, but its vague and misguided screenplay deprives Fukunaga’s passion project the gravitas needed to become the compelling epic about war through the eyes of a child, rather than just another miserable tale about the war torn landscape of Africa.
When civil war tears his family apart, a young West African boy is forced to join a unit of mercenary fighters and transform into a child soldier.
In the tradition of third world problems from the perspective of a westerner, here we have Beasts of No Nation.
In fairness, the movie does benefit from the aesthetic of Fukunaga. Apart from directing the film, he is also the cinematographer. The camerawork – a mix of Steadicam and widescreen shots – makes for an immersive world of guerrilla warfare in the front lines. The cinematography – overcast lighting along with shadows and silhouettes – provides a stark picture. The detailed production design provides a lived-in look from the set pieces to the costumes of the rebels.
First-time young actor Abraham Attah holds his own next to Idris Elba. However, it is the veteran actor who takes center stage as the magnetic Commandant. The rest of the supporting cast did well with what they’re given albeit little.
Anyone who paid attention to the technical execution of True Detective Season 1 will know that Fukunaga’s notable skills behind the camera is in display here. In one scene, the camera follows Agu through a trench of red clay ankle deep with muddy water, showing the deprived soldiers as desperation take its toll on the militia. However, the screenplay is too vague to elevate it beyond another tale of third world miserablism that further skews the view of Africa.
The plot is filled with every trick in its genre’s playbook, revolves around some vague conflict, and set in an unnamed location somewhere in Africa. The movie’s matter of fact approach to the realities of children soldiers swept in the machinery of war does hold your attention as Agu’s life is tragically turned upside down. But the lack of political context make it look like just another reminder that Africa is a horrible place for anyone.
It doesn’t help that the lead is a blank slate next to the more interesting Commandant whose real intentions is gradually revealed. He acts as a surrogate father and coach, but only to get his young charges to follow his lead to an ambiguous end. The way this towering depraved figure is reminded and reduced to a pawn like the children he uses as cannon fodder is more compelling because its a timely commentary on war in the age of media.
The movie is supposed to be from Agu’s perspective, but you’re given little of what’s going through Agu’s mind. The movie conveniently uses snippets of poetic narration to substitute for revelations of his inner turmoil and psyche. There’s also nothing much to glean from his life as a rebel, as other characters are one dimensional and his only real friend is a mute.
Beasts of No Nation ends with an inconclusive epilogue for Agu but you’ll be left wondering about the Commandant. As the source of Agu’s trauma rather than the violence of war, his absence weighs more than the uncertain future of his apprentice. How long will his influence hold and how far is he willing to go now that he is truly a beast of no nation?
Beasts of No Nation is a well made film and I would like to think it was created with good intentions as a project 10 years in the making. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t have the same treatment as its visuals to create a compelling story about the saddest consequence of war – how it destroys the innocent lives it’s supposed to protect.
My Rating: 6.5/10