So this is what Cary Joji Fukunaga was doing instead of directing the second season of True Detective. Smart choice. True Detective’s second season was an unwatchable mess. And though Beasts of No Nation is almost unwatchable, it’s for an entirely different reason.
One can see just so much child torture before becoming completely repulsed. But that’s what Beasts of No Nation is—a catalogue of child torture. It takes the form of a civil war in an unnamed African country. Agu (Abraham Attah, who’s very good) is 12 or 13, and lives in a city that the factions have agreed will be neutral—until they break that agreement and start fighting in town.
Agu’s father is forced to send Agu’s mother and younger sister away (we never learn their fates), and the men, including Agu’s grandfather and older brother, stay behind to tend to their property. That only works for so long, and Agu’s father, brother and grandfather, after being accused of rebel activity, are killed by a junta as Agu flees into the forest.
Alone for a few days, scared, starving and tremendously sad, Agu is taken in by a rebel group, led by a man known only as Commandant and played by Idris Elba. The Commandant is one of those perfect movie characters—he’s cold, cruel and ruthless when he needs to be, but also protective of the other child soldiers in his group (when he isn’t molesting them, that is).
Elba is exceptional in the role. He rols through with enough cock swagger, confidence and charisma to let the audience know that he will not be fucked with (something some of his soldiers learn the hard way). It’s a good thing an actor such as Elba plays this part—one false move and the course that Beasts of No Nation offers in Brutality 101 would dip into the aforementioned unwatchableness if it were even slightly more disturbing.
And it’s highly disturbing. Anyone not watching through his fingers will witness Agu kill his first person (with a machete), shoot more than one person in the head and then go play soccer on a roof while other members of the rebel group are shooting people in the background. It’s all so unrelentingly grim that one has to wonder just what the point is.
Perhaps it’s because we need movies that are as shocking as Beasts of No Nation. We can’t have all the whiz-bang sunshine-up-the-ass of the Marvel movies without something to offset them and remind us that there is atrocity in this world that doesn’t involve a formerly scrawny World War II-era soldier and his superpals. Even if it’s a movie as horrifying as this one.
Director Fukunaga, who wrote the screenplay from Uzodinma Iweala’s novel, is undoubtedly the right person to bring this to the screen. The action is solid, the performances excellent, the mood a tightrope between effervescent and despairing—much like the first season of True Detective. It’s just really, really difficult to watch children being exploited into perpetrating these horrible war crimes. Even if this movie is fiction, child soldiers aren’t (which Fukunaga and the other filmmakers remind us of in the credits). Beasts of No Nation is a good picture. It’s just a beast to get through.
BEASTS OF NO NATION
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
With Elba and Attah
Violet Crown Cinema
Santa Fe Reporter