Beasts of No Nation (2015)
dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga
written by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye
3.5 out of 4 stars
Netflix continues to break new grounds, along with many other streaming services, in providing varied, challenging original content. Their first theatrical release arrives upon the backs of child soldier movie Beasts of No Nation. Based on Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel about Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy in an unnamed African country swept out of his happy family life into life as a child soldier in a resistance movement. Aided by his companion Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) and taken under the abusive wing by the brutal Commandant (Idris Elba), Agu navigates the freedoms and horrors of the world he has entered.
Cary Joji Fukunaga followed up his award winning turn on the first season of HBO’s True Detective with this emotionally wrenching war drama. Having delved into drug and human trafficking with Sin Nombre and Bronte period drama in Jane Eyre, Fukunaga tackles his most tense and difficult piece, managing hard to watch subject matter and digging up exceptional performances from young actors. Doubling as his own cinematographer, Fukunaga drags us into a world of nightmares.
Idris Elba is expectedly and convincingly evil as the Commandant, the leader of Agu’s adopted military family, who takes our young lead under his tutelage. Manipulative and pristinely accented, Elba’s tough edge from Luther and African notability from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom are completely separate from this villain. He pushes boundaries of his young wards and where he attempts to be charming, he is a destructive, self-serving force to be reckoned with. On his side, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, an extra plucked from obscurity, performs the Commandant’s blank eyed sidekick with simplistic power. Almost completely silent, inborn rage decorates his face as he performs brutal acts destructive to this boy robbed of boyhood–so aware but absent.
Abraham Attah made an outstanding debut as Agu. Ripped from his family by war, Agu is forced to abandon his previous self to become an agent of destruction. Filled with consternation, his performance experiences every ounce of his soul draining. Trying to manage ferocity where there had been relative innocence, he dabbles with vengeance with ever increasing disconnection.
Pairing this Attah with Fukunaga’s vision excelled. Perhaps overly long, the screenplay, adapted by the director, provides ample insight into the mind of this boy in a conflicted coming of age story. His experiences, performed mostly in voiceover, separate his physical form from his emotional and moral placement, where Elba’s character and the surrounding militants exist in soliloquy and shouting.
Produced with powerful cinematography–Attah’s first salute shrouded by Elba’s powerful form, disappearing behind his presence to emerge a fledgling soldier, holds particular weight–, handsome sound design, and notable costumes, Fukunaga’s return to film holds his strongest work. Passionate and devasting, Beasts of No Nation is a disturbing yet beautiful film all around.