Hollywood has done a bang up job over the years telling the story of young men destroyed by wars. Some might argue it’s been their bread and butter. Occasionally there have been poignant child’s-eye-views of war, from the profane (Come and See) to the romanticized and sentimental (Hope and Glory). But what happens when the children are the soldiers? Hardly new in our human history, but always horrific and tragic, Beasts of No Nation (from the novel inspired by grim reality from Uzodinma Iweala) shows us what happens when children become warriors and delivers a first-hand account of one such child Agu (Abraham Atta) in an unnamed present-day African nation torn apart by civil war. The harrowing experience seems more at home on the written page (which for some reason always allows for easier digestion of the inhumane aspects of humanity), but in the hands of Cary Joji Fukunaga (acclaimed filmmaker of such varied fare as Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre and the first season of True Detective), the story demands a visual chronicle.
When you’re the guy best known for that unforgettable tracking shot of the McConaissance traveling through a ghetto Bayou hellscape in a drug raid for the ages, you better deliver when you become your own cinematographer on your next film. Filling the duties of producer, director, co-screenwriter and cinematographer, Fukunaga, for anyone who wasn’t sold on his talent already, arrives here as advertised and announces himself as one of the major new forces to be reckoned with in cinema. Capturing atmospheric images of beauty and horror and raw human drama, Fukunaga (aided by Dan Romer’s music score) nails the technical aspects of the film. His sure hand thus allows his cast – lead by the amateur Atta who perfectly captures the essence of a child soldier making you sympathize, fear and ultimately empathize, and anchored by a volcanic Idris Elba in an Oscar-worthy supporting turn as the vile Commandant who recruits and leads the children into guerilla warfare – nail the emotional aspects of the story.
The film, like the war and abused children it depicts, grows wild and untamed, and it’s 2 hour and 17 minute run time becomes a chore as we are moved from one episodic tragedy to the next. As is the popular way with stories such as this, viewers runs the risk of becoming desensitized. And I reckon filmmakers would argue that might be the point, but that doesn’t forgive the pain of sitting through some of these scenes. We end up praying with the protagonist for this to end. Again…it might be the point. But Fukunaga would’ve been wiser, given all the raw talent and emotion involved here, had he been tighter with the story and moved things along at a more frantic yet controlled pace that could’ve captured the insanity of it all better than the slow and mournful cadence he fell into all too easily.
Despite falling into many of the genre tropes, the presentation and the performances are all around too good for discerning viewers to ignore this powerful entry. Beasts of No Nation is the first original film to be released by Netflix. Having the film available to all subscribers through their streaming service while still showing it in a few select art-houses to qualify it for an Oscar run is an interesting release pattern. Only time will tell if this is the wave of the future. On the flip side, hopefully these types of stories will become a thing of the past where a more humane reality with make this inhumanity a relic of a more uncivilized time…but that, like Netflix’s democratic pipe dream of streaming original cinema, might be wishful thinking.
Written by David H. Schleicher