Beasts of No Nation reviews

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Re: Beasts of No Nation reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Mon Jan 04, 2016 12:16 am

I'm largely in line with both you guys. I think the movie is made with tremendous panache -- plenty of memorable shots and sequences. But I feel like I've seen things along this line before (wasn't part of Blood Diamond similar?), and the action did get repetitive after a while. (The fact that the country wasn't named, nor the specific disputes cited, made it feel a bit generic -- as if there are so many African countries undergoing such internal disputes that they didn't even feel the need to narrow it to one. I liked Agu's voice-over in general, but I didn't feel at the end that I had that strong an idea of where all these experiences had brought him -- the film stopped more than ended, and his character set adrift.

Elba is immensely charismatic -- when he makes his initial entrance, it's as if everyone else is wiped from the frame. And I'd argue he does have something of a character arc: his shock/feeling of diminution when the Supreme Commander demotes him is a far cry from his early bravado, and his final scene, despite his attempt to maintain rhetorical command, shows him as a lost man. It's a very strong role, and I, too, would be happy to see him on the Oscar list -- though there are so many this year meeting than standard that I think even if I were privileged to hand-pick the Oscar five there'd be someone I love who I'd have to omit.

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Re: Beasts of No Nation reviews

Postby ITALIANO » Sat Jan 02, 2016 4:46 pm

The Original BJ wrote:I'd argue that Elba doesn't PLAY it one-dimensionally


True.

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Re: Beasts of No Nation reviews

Postby The Original BJ » Sat Jan 02, 2016 4:09 pm

Beasts of No Nation is the kind of movie -- much like The Revenant -- where I split wildly on the movie depending on whether the discussion is about form or content. I think highly of Fukunaga's work as a director here, and find the movie not only gorgeously shot, but also full of impeccable stylistic craft that for the most part didn't feel like gratuitous showiness. (The one exception would be the sequence in black-and-white with flashes of color, which seemed to draw way too much intention to itself without serving much of a purpose.) I particularly loved the long-take/roaming camera sequence, which utilized Fukunaga's now-characteristic love of and talent for extended takes, and which never came off as a stunt -- I felt so plunged into the horrors of the scene I didn't feel aware of the visual ostentation of the sequence until it had ended. And throughout the movie, Fukunaga finds moments of great visual beauty that don't seem at odds with the ugliness of his subject.

But I don't nearly think as highly of the filmmaker's work as a writer on this movie. Italiano points out that the movie lacks much in terms of context -- I feel obnoxious making a complaint like "we don't know what country this is," but that vagueness was pretty emblematic of my overall problems with the script. I didn't think we got nearly enough information about who was fighting whom and why to give the story any kind of larger political resonance. And maybe even that would have been okay if the nuts and bolts of the story had been more interesting. But for me, once the young protagonist becomes roped into Elba's gang, there just isn't that much plot that follows. The movie becomes a sequence of increasingly horrifying incidents, but without much insight about them, and given that there wasn't much tension or incident in the narrative, I found it became fairly monotonous pretty quickly. Italiano is right when he says that the movie gives you pretty much what you'd expect, and I tend to find it hard to engage with a film when I feel like every twenty minutes just feels like a repetition of the first twenty minutes.

As I've said elsewhere, I do think Idris Elba's performance is the movie's finest element of distinction. His physical presence throughout the movie is incredibly dynamic, but I also thought he managed the very tricky task of making his character seem like a human being without ever trying to make him the kind of villain you love to hate. He's ruthless through and through, and while watching his performance, I kept thinking how rare it was that we see that kind of evil without it feeling one-note. (Here I would actually disagree with Italiano that the part is one-dimensional, or at least, I'd argue that Elba doesn't PLAY it one-dimensionally.) I very much hope he hangs on for an Oscar nomination in that crowded Supporting Actor field.

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Re: Beasts of No Nation reviews

Postby ITALIANO » Sat Jan 02, 2016 9:11 am

I can't judge this movie properly - I'm not well-informed on the situation which it portrays, so I don't know if it's a realistic depiction of it (which the movie claims to be) or at least a partly-sensationalized one (which of course I hope it is). But I can't deny that it's very well-made, shot in an almost-documentaristic way, and extremely well-acted by a cast composed of, I guess, mostly non-professionals. This, needless to say, makes the material more "real" and believable, and the violence in it more affecting and disturbing - like it or not, it's a movie which stays with you. It doesn't give you anything more than what you expect - it is, basically, a succession of horrors as seen (and felt, and later even caused) by a child during a civil war. It doesn't want you to understand more about the politics (even the country is unnamed I think), or the social issues of the context - but (again: if it's realistic) it's a certainly interesting experience - and an involving one. (The director, by the way, also wrote the script AND did the cinematography. No small feat, especially considering that the actors are truly well-directed, and the child is especially convincing). Some moments are almost unberarably "strong" (strong a la City of God, if you know what I mean), and I realized at one point that this may have been the first time in decades that I - briefly - closed my eyes during one scene.

I'm not sure that I'd personally nominate Idris Elba for his performance here - it's obviously a bit too one-note for my tastes, and it HAS to be so - the role is written that way. But that one note is expertly executed, the character is a powerful one and the actor interacts well with the non-professionals who surround him. In the end, you believe this monster, and you feel that he's still human. A Best Supporting Actor nomination wouldn't be undeserved.

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Re: Beasts of No Nation reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Thu Oct 15, 2015 10:54 pm

This is one thing the Oscar bloggers are good for, keeping up on stuff like this. They all have the film eligible, despite the Netflix release. (Whether persnickety Hollywood types choose to ignore that and punish the film for breaking the code is another matter.)

dws, I remain technology-reluctant -- I wouldn't have the first notion how to stream anything (and I don't have any device, which I guess I'd need, to be able to run it through my TV if I did). I'm sure I'm going to have to learn how eventually; I just didn't expect it to hobble my Oscar completeness.

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Re: Beasts of No Nation reviews

Postby Big Magilla » Thu Oct 15, 2015 10:44 pm

Rules keep changing but the Netflix day-and-date release does not effect Oscar eligibility, at least as far as this year is concenred:

Academy Rule 3 - Awards Year and Deadlines for 2015

1. The required Los Angeles County qualifying run (described in Rule Two Paragraph 2) must begin between January 1, 2015, and midnight of December 31, 2015.

2. A motion picture first theatrically exhibited inside the U.S. prior to the Los Angeles County qualifying run shall be eligible for submission, provided the prior exhibition is a theatrical preview or festival screening, or takes place in a commercial motion picture theater after January 1, 2014. No nontheatrical public exhibition or distribution may occur prior to the first day of the Los Angeles County qualifying run.

3. A motion picture first theatrically exhibited outside the U.S. prior to the Los Angeles County qualifying run shall be eligible for submission, provided the prior exhibition takes place in a commercial motion picture theater after January 1, 2014. After the start of its initial theatrical engagement, a picture may be exhibited on television and other nontheatrical media, provided those exhibitions occur outside the U.S. Inside the U.S., no nontheatrical public exhibition or distribution may occur prior to the first day of the Los Angeles County qualifying run.

4. Each picture may have only one Los Angeles County qualifying run. The earliest theatrical exhibition that meets such definition shall be designated the picture’s qualifying run.

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Re: Beasts of No Nation reviews

Postby dws1982 » Thu Oct 15, 2015 9:31 pm

IFC and Sundance Selects usually does a simultaneous Theatrical/VOD release, and I think some of their films have been eligible in the past few years. (Although Boyhood, which was an IFC release, didn't get a VOD release simultaneously with its Theatrical release.) I'm not entirely sure though--generally their films don't get nominated.

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Re: Beasts of No Nation reviews

Postby OscarGuy » Thu Oct 15, 2015 9:08 pm

We'll also discover if a simultaneous release will make it ineligible for the Oscars. I always thought they prohibited such things.
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Re: Beasts of No Nation reviews

Postby dws1982 » Thu Oct 15, 2015 8:52 pm

Mister Tee wrote:On top of that, because I don't do Netflix Streaming, it's utterly unavailable for me to see any other way. I was able to put it on Save -- which I could do for Bridge of Spies, as well, if I waited to wait till February/March to see it.

I realize it's not the same as seeing it in a theater, but I believe Netflix offers a free trial for their streaming service, so you could conceivably do a free trial, watch it, and then cancel. And honestly, even paying for a month just to watch it would be comparable to paying for a movie ticket. Although I don't know what kind of setup you have--if you have a DVD/Blu-Ray player that can stream it through your TV, etc.

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Re: Beasts of No Nation reviews

Postby The Original BJ » Thu Oct 15, 2015 8:09 pm

Mister Tee wrote:So, I check Moviefone for tomorrow, searching through the five(!) movies opening in NY that I want to see. And I can't find Beasts of No Nation anywhere on my Movies Near You pages. I finally find it's playing at the Sunshine Cinema on East Houston Street, which for an Upper West Sider might as well be Connecticut. (Seriously: I'd have to switch subways 2-3 times to get there)

I assumed the Netflix thing might keep it out of the largest/most-sought theatres, but, Christ, Snowpiercer played in one of the smaller houses near Lincoln Center.

On top of that, because I don't do Netflix Streaming, it's utterly unavailable for me to see any other way. I was able to put it on Save -- which I could do for Bridge of Spies, as well, if I waited to wait till February/March to see it.

Is the situation the same in other cities (LA the most analogous)?


The major chains are all boycotting the movie due to the simultaneous Netflix release.

Beasts is playing in one theater on the west side in Los Angeles -- not the most centrally located theater, but one I routinely go to for movies of this kind.

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Re: Beasts of No Nation reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Thu Oct 15, 2015 7:44 pm

So, I check Moviefone for tomorrow, searching through the five(!) movies opening in NY that I want to see. And I can't find Beasts of No Nation anywhere on my Movies Near You pages. I finally find it's playing at the Sunshine Cinema on East Houston Street, which for an Upper West Sider might as well be Connecticut. (Seriously: I'd have to switch subways 2-3 times to get there)

I assumed the Netflix thing might keep it out of the largest/most-sought theatres, but, Christ, Snowpiercer played in one of the smaller houses near Lincoln Center.

On top of that, because I don't do Netflix Streaming, it's utterly unavailable for me to see any other way. I was able to put it on Save -- which I could do for Bridge of Spies, as well, if I waited to wait till February/March to see it.

Is the situation the same in other cities (LA the most analogous)?

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Beasts of No Nation reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Thu Sep 03, 2015 8:30 pm

Variety
Justin Chang
Chief Film Critic @JustinCChang

The unsentimental education of an African child soldier is captured with savage beauty and matter-of-fact horror in “Beasts of No Nation,” a tough-minded, tough-viewing chronicle of a civil war as seen through the eyes of one of its youngest casualties. Having moved with growing confidence from a slick Mexican gangland saga (“Sin nombre”) to a tony Victorian lit adaptation (“Jane Eyre”) to a crackerjack American crime serial (season one of “True Detective”), writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga pulls off another chameleonlike turn with this artful, accomplished but not entirely sustained adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 debut novel, never quite finding an ideal cinematic equivalent for the singular spareness and ferocity of the author’s prose. By turns lucid and a bit logy, and undeniably overlong, it’s nevertheless the rare American movie to enter a distant land and emerge with a sense of lived-in human experience rather than a well-meaning Third World postcard. As such, its aesthetic integrity won’t make its grueling subject matter an easier sell to the mainstream.

Following its festival premieres at Venice, Telluride and Toronto, Fukunaga’s long-gestating passion project will prove a significant test of Netflix’s arthouse reach and marketing savvy when it rolls out Oct. 16 via the company’s streaming service, simultaneous with its limited theatrical release through Bleecker Street Media. Still, it’s unclear if the relative ease of on-demand viewing will offset the challenge of a starkly violent 136-minute war drama with no recognizable cast names except Idris Elba, providing a lone burst of star wattage in a context that could otherwise scarcely feel more harrowingly grounded in reality. With its high-profile pedigree and mostly English dialogue, “Beasts of No Nation” may be more accessible than recent child-soldier dramas like Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s “Johnny Mad Dog” (2008), Noaz Deshe’s “White Shadow” (2014) and Kim Nguyen’s Oscar-nominated “War Witch” (2012), but it’s no more likely to win over the faint of heart.

This is, after all, the story of Agu (Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah), a young boy from an unnamed African country who finds himself orphaned amid a sudden outbreak of violence, then swiftly adopted by a warlord known as the Commandant (Elba), who trains him to be a guerrilla fighter in a conflict he’s barely old enough to comprehend. In the novel, which wove together scenes from Agu’s brutal new life with memories of happier days at home with his family, Iweala wrote in a poetically primitive first-person voice that gave even the flashbacks a present-tense urgency; it was a stream-of-consciousness thriller in which the boy’s half-formed insights and ideas erupted with convulsive force on the page. “I am not bad boy. I am soldier and soldier is not bad if he is killing,” Agu notes early on, capturing a world of moral confusion in one piercing line.

Fukunaga has retained many of the story’s particulars but reshuffled them into a more straightforward linear narrative, which begins with a warm, joyous portrait of Agu’s early childhood. We see him making mischief with his friends, pranking his older brother (Francis Weddey), and being a good if rascally son to his God-fearing mother (Ama K. Abebrese) and schoolteacher father (Kobina Amissah Sam). But everything changes as military tanks roll into their village and a reign of terror begins, tearing families apart and forcing everyone to flee. In a scene of overwhelming chaos and panic, Agu is abruptly separated from his mother and little sister (Vera Nyarkoah Antwi), and before long his father and his brother have left him as well, gunned down in a surge of carnage that is senseless and sudden, but not inexplicable. One of the key lessons of “Beasts of No Nation” is that all violence, however ghastly, has a point of origin.

Before long, Agu will find himself clad in makeshift fatigues, wielding a machete, and inflicting his own horrors as a member of a rebel army. Their leader, the Commandant, is a fiery seducer of minds and souls who incites his young conscripts to commit horrific acts of slaughter in the name of revenge. When he orders Agu to perform an initiation killing, he claims the victim-to-be was responsible for the death of the boy’s father — a lie that convinces no one, least of all Agu himself, but which provides a flimsy pretext for the grim, blood-spattered scene that follows. Words, more than rifles or machetes, turn out to be the Commandant’s weapon of choice: Barking and cajoling, he whips his young warriors into action with furious war rhetoric, even as he tries to lull them into a sense of familial camaraderie. By recasting himself as a sort of surrogate father figure, he can not only displace the memory of their parents, but also exploit it for his own murderous ends.

Elba hasn’t had a big-screen part this substantial since he was cast as a very different kind of African leader in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (2013), and in his skillfully underplayed performance, the Commandant emerges as both a charismatic villain in the grand Hollywood tradition and a persuasive product of his environment. Notably, while Fukunaga captures the insidious intimacy of the bond that develops between the Commandant and Agu, he omits the novel’s explicit scenes of the warlord sexually abusing his young charges, perhaps aware that this is one act of brutality that might exceed the limits of the audience’s tolerance. Despite a shaky third act that loses considerable narrative steam, the film ultimately conjures a measure of pathos for the Commandant following a tense meeting with his own superior (Jude Akuwudike), in which these puffed-up alpha males reveal themselves to be just two more cogs in the rumbling machinery of war.

Fukunaga, whose work on “Jane Eyre” and “True Detective” cemented his reputation as one of the more gifted visual stylists of his filmmaking generation, brings the same level of artistry to bear on “Beasts,” which marks the first time he’s served as his own feature cinematographer. Shooting the richly varied landscapes of coastal Ghana in striking widescreen compositions that move from dust-choked village roads to verdant jungles to cleansing ocean tides, he draws us into a realm whose natural beauty feels at times like a provocation next to the sheer ugliness of what he shows us. The film’s richly immersive sense of local atmosphere is further aided by rich contributions from production designer Inbal Weinberg and costume designer Jenny Eagan, nailing the colorful, far-from-uniform dress code of the Commandant’s motley militia.

Yet while Fukunaga creates Agu’s world with an extraordinary attentiveness to detail, he hasn’t quite found a way to approximate the novel’s radically childlike perspective, or to bridge the gap between this child soldier’s psyche and our own. For all the film’s unyielding focus on Agu’s journey and its reams of voiceover narration, something essential seems to have been lost in the transition from page to screen; this is a drama that’s ultimately more persuasive on a pictorial level than it is compelling on a psychological one. And although the movie’s worthy, humanist themes are all but inscribed on every frame, the manner in which they coalesce somehow feels naggingly unspecific; the film’s end-credits imperative (“Tell the world that children are not soldiers”) feels at once thoroughly laudable and somehow insufficient to the dramatic task at hand.

None of this detracts from the fine work of young Attah, who plays Agu with a grave, soulful reserve that belies the fact that this is his first-ever screen performance. The actor has haunting scenes here, including Agu’s tragic encounter with a desperate, wailing mother whom he mistakes for his own, and his scenes of quiet bonding with Strika (Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom Quaye), the mute young soldier who initially recruits him and soon becomes his only real friend. “Beasts of No Nation” doesn’t make the mistake of forcing Agu and his fellow soldiers down some easy road to redemption, but it grasps that these fugitive gestures of compassion might be profound acts of moral survival.


Hollywood Reporter
by Todd McCarthy

One of the many horrors of the modern world, that of child soldiers being coerced into violent combat roles by African warlords, is compellingly and convincingly dramatized in Cary Joji Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation. The writer-director-cinematographer's two previous features also dealt with brutalizing rites of passage suffered by young people — Central Americans making their way through Mexico to the U.S. border in Sin Nombre, a 19th century English orphan girl's harsh life in Jane Eyre — but Beasts rates as the most disturbing of the three because of the way the pre-pubescent boy at its center is forced to become a ruthless killer. After its trifecta debut at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals, Netflix's first original feature film will bow theatrically in Landmark theaters in the U.S. via the independent distributor Bleecker Street on October 16, the same day it debuts world-wide on Netflix.

Like the acclaimed 2005 debut novel of the same name by Nigerian-American writer Uzodinma Iweala on which it is based, the film plays out its grim story in an unnamed country, as rebels without a known cause or affiliation ruthlessly attack the general populace, as well as government forces when they find them, on behalf of a Supreme Commander. No ideology is brandished, no ideals are espoused; it's just a constant life of warfare and meager rations and no sense that, once victory is achieved, life will be much different than it was before.

The significant decision not to identify a particular country, ideology or religion cuts two ways. Favoring the general over the specific always removes a certain urgency to a story such as this and also encourages guessing over who and what the tale is supposed to represent (there is no doubt that Iweala's novel is, by implication, about Nigeria). But the sad truth is that a narrative like this could credibly be set in any number of post-colonial nations, and getting bogged down in what actually happened in this or that country could sap the tale of its penetrating application to many locales.

"I'm a good boy from a good family," says little Agu (Abraham Attah), and his village life is briefly sketched as one of fun and games. His father is a teacher, and he and his older brother attend a proper school and Christian church. All of a sudden, however, refugees start filing through, followed by "rebels" who mow down local "spies" indiscriminately, including Agu's father and brother. In a flash, his family is no more, and Agu retreats into the bush for dear life.

In short order, the boy is captured and has no choice but to become part of a new family, a ragtag collection of other boys and young men led by the Commandant (Idris Elba), who leads what is only described as an anti-government force. They have no uniforms and little to eat but do possess a huge supply of arms, and when the group successfully ambushes an enemy caravan, the Commandant initiates Agu by forcing him to execute a prisoner with a machete. It's a dreadful sight.

The Commandant is an imposing, charismatic figure, and scary not only for his fearsome power but for his unreliability. The man could easily have been played as yet another strutting aspiring dictator who lucked into a position where he can lord it over others. But Elba gradually reveals the guy as a far more complicated and seriously damaged man. More often than not, he's smoking something that puts him in an altered state, and many of his dictates seem entirely arbitrary. He stews and sulks and is short on the sorts of inspiring words self-styled leaders often spew. He's probably a depressive and it's implied that he demands sexual favors from the younger boys, including Agu. But he keeps a sharp eye on things all the same, pushes the guys hard and keeps them in line. He cuts a rough, erratic but commanding profile and is an automatic father figure to the boys and young men who, with their guns and growing numbers, suddenly have power when shortly before they had none.

One of the great virtues of youth is adaptability, and with all that has just happened to him Agu quickly learns to fit in. Spells of inactivity are suddenly broken by brutal action, as the Commandant leads successful raids on villages, where success is measured by the number of innocent civilians that are massacred. Kids even kill other kids, and Agu is taught any number of horrible tricks, like putting grenades in prisoners' mouth and waiting to see what happens.

From all appearances, the rebels' war is going well, with the Commandant's forces rolling from town to town and adding more troops as they go. For his part, Agu has formed an attachment with a silent boy soldier named Strika (the memorably named Emmanuel 'King Kong' Nii Adom Quaye), and the youngsters, along with the Commandant, expect great things when they triumphantly arrive at the big city to join up with the forces of the Supreme Leader.

What happens from here on is surprising for the Commandant, demoralizing about Africa and, if not optimistic, at least open where Agu is concerned. There's no analysis or even suggestion as to why things have reached this dire point, no historical or political frame through which to regard it, no attempts at explanation or philosophical perspectives concerning human nature. The necessity of circumstances dictates everything anyone does here and you can only react with varying degrees of outrage, anger, disgust, pity, empathy and, if you're a blind optimist, hope for something better.

One of the most impressive things about Beasts is that it was able to be made at all, and with such verisimilitude. Shot mostly outdoors in Ghana, the action moves around a great deal and there are several large-scale scenes of troops moving into ever-bigger towns, skirmishes, battles and mass evacuations that obviously presented major logistical challenges. Given the country's lack of much filmmaking infrastructure or a history of hosting big international productions, what's ended up onscreen is very impressive, and Fukunaga's camerawork is — as in his earlier films — lustrous and alert without falling back onto mere hand-held exigencies.

Central to the film's power and success are the two lead performances. How a child actor could be coached to reveal and project the enormous range of reactions and emotions required for the role of Agu is practically unimaginable, but Attah is persuasive and true and constantly interesting to watch as a boy forced to endure extremes of experience to be wished on no one. The film would not have been worth making without a capable kid at its center, and the director found him.

Starting out with what could have been a cliched figure of a charismatic egotist lording over a bunch of helpless youngsters, Elba keeps revealing more and more layers of his troubled character, to the point where the Commandant begins to assume Shakespearean proportions as a Macbeth-like figure who may not really have what it takes to be a completely successful and enduring despot. The actor keeps pushing his characterization further and further to the rather surprising end, never taking the easy way.


Screen Daily
By Fionnuala Halligan, Chief Film Critic

Dir/scr/cine. Cary Joji Fukunaga. US, 2015, 136 mins

Beasts Of No Nation is a gutsy, ambitious production. The first original feature from Netflix, it will challenge the distribution sector’s status quo when it makes an Award-qualifying premiere in select US markets on October 16 – the same day it is made available worldwide for download on the service. Written, directed and lensed by Sin Nombre’s Cary Joji Fukunaga, it adapts the 2005 novel by the Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala about an African child soldier who is ripped from his family by civil war and forced to fight for a Joseph-Kony-like warlord played by Idris Elba (who also produces). The 136-minute film was shot on location in Ghana with the clear intent of delivering an epic indictment on this evil which has plagued sub-Saharan Africa, in particular.

To that extent, it succeeds. Full of committed performances, particularly from Elba and the impressive young actor Abraham Attah, Beasts Of No Nation is a project of considerable integrity which makes for a consistently-engrossing, if over-long, viewing experience. It is grim, often harsh and occasionally trips over to nightmarish, Heart of Darkness territory. Like the central character of the Commandant, played so effectively by Elba, it also struggles to hold onto its power throughout. Its release is probably a well-judged commercial platform for this long-planned film, purchased by Netflix for a reported $12m; it might have been a challenge for wide cinema audiences.

While there are similarities here to 2008’s Johnny Mad Dog and other recent films about African child soldiers, Fukunaga’s film has its own voice, although it is not based on a first-person account by a former African boy soldier - Iweala wrote the book as a continuation of his Harvard thesis work on their stories. The author was careful to set his book in an un-named country, with factions of mercenaries swarming through the bush countryside, a whirling, surreal chaos punctuated by a first-person narrative with a singular cadence. That distinctive sing-song voice, stronger on the page than on the screen perhaps, belongs to mischievous young Agu (the Ghananian actor Attah, in his first screen role), who lives in a “buffer zone” between factions as the film starts out.

Whereas Iweala mixed the timelines of his narrative, Fukunaga opts for a linear delivery. Despite his charm and impishness, the viewer is always aware that Agu lives in a time and place of great violence, and when it finally erupts, it takes his entire family away in the most brutal manner (his mother and baby sister flee to the capital; his father and brother are brutally murdered in front of him). And Agu is just a child: he runs desperately into the bush, where he can barely survive alone (he has already told his schoolteacher father that he believes lions live in a zoo).

The cycle of violence has commenced and Agu is quickly picked off by the Commandant (Elba), a deadly Fagin with a band of lawless young men and boys – child-live, vicious peacocks carrying totems who are treated with inhuman cruelty by the Commandant which they in turn dispense to the unfortunates they encounter. Here’s where Fukunaga is at his strongest – he clearly conveys this army’s cult-like conditions (in particular the terrifying indoctrination ceremony) and the favouritism – sexual and otherwise – shown by the Commandant to his favourite boys. To call them de-sensitised under-states their condition.

Agu finds a friend in the mute boy Striker (Emmanuel ‘King Kong’ Nii Adom Quaye), and they watch as the older boys murder and rape. Agu is told to kill a man, crossing a line over into a hell which is eventually relieved and amplified by the use of ‘brown-brown’ (cocaine mixed with gunpowder).

Throughout, Fukunaga (as his own DoP for the first time) trains the camera on the red skies and soil of Africa, the blood and the embers of the flames in the night-time terror the Commandant and his boys dispense. There’s a set piece, if you can call it that, where Elba’s character takes the boys to capture a bridge and exhorts them in a tribal dance, which is mesmeric, ratcheting up the hell with low bass notes, followed by some colour negative frames. This is an unexpected turn from an increasingly versatile Fukunaga (nothing from Sin Nombre or the restraint of Jane Eyre would have led viewers to expect Beasts of No Nation from this director).

Elba has the chance here to create a deep performance – the charismatic, evil, eventually vulnerable commander – and he takes it. This is a strong performance from the British-born actor, and he clearly conveys the Commandant’s mercurial, manipulative power, mostly wrought through words. Although the film has trouble maintaining its hold in the final hour, there is still a sequence where he is brought in front of his faction’s ‘Supreme Commander’ (he must wait behind Asian businessmen) and the power-shifts reflected on the actor’s face are entirely engrossing.

“The only way not to be fighting any more is to be dying,” says Agu, in one of the film’s final scenes, although the child in him has long since passed away. By the time the violence has spent itself out, there’s almost nowhere for Fukunaga to go, nothing left that hasn’t been already visually slammed home. All technical credits here are excellent, in particular costuming by Jenny Egan, Dan Romer’s music, and Inbal Weinberg’s production design, presenting an almost mythical odyssey through the bush into the towns and villages of a blighted land, set nowhere but everywhere in Africa where such lawlessness reigns.


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