I’m not quite sure what I expected going in to Beasts of No Nation, but I didn’t get it. Reflecting on it afterwards, I probably was looking for more of a sense of outrage, or a sense of anything really, rather than the strange detachment Fukunaga leaves us with. When you hear that there’s a film about child soldiers in Africa, you don’t really expect it to take an approach this neutral.
Agu (Abraham Attah) is an average boy living with his family in a war torn part of Africa. His life goes on as normally as one would expect, until the fighting reaches his village and Agu is separated from his family. Heeding the last words of his father, he flees into the woods and remains there until he is picked up by the Commandant (Idris Elba) and his army of other boys. Agu goes through an initiation ceremony and becomes a soldier and a killer under the Commandant’s control.
Watching this film, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Terrance Malick’s films. This film has a similar detachment to it. This could be because of its child protagonist; in this situation a child wouldn’t necessarily grasp all of the emotions at play in this complex situation. I do think Agu is traumatized by what he’s been made to do, and is at least somewhat aware of what is going on. Not the political or military climate, which is only murkily exposed in the film, but the morality of a boy such as himself being made to kill other human beings. He voice over narration throughout the film addresses this; he’s a boy who’s far away from home, mourning his family, praying for guidance and looking for his mother. He knows that killing is wrong, but he also knows that he’s doesn’t any other choice. I think he has a strong emotional viewpoint that Fukunaga could have tapped into very effectively, but he doesn’t really.
There is a strange disregard of Agu’s struggles in favor of the study of the Commandant. This is an understandable choice practically; it’s easier to get an audience interested in a charismatic (adult) actor like Idris Elba even if he is playing a war criminal. The Commandant’s character is definitely worth examination. There are many shots and scenes that are just Agu studying him, which I believe he would do in that situation, but it’s detached emotionally just like the rest of the film.
The sensitive subject matter makes this film very hard to judge. I would never want to say this boy’s story is unimportant, but that feeling leaves me in the awkward position of not quite knowing how to look at this strangely dispassionate film. Because I think Agu is self-aware enough to grasp much of the horror of his situation, but the film doesn’t necessarily portray that visually or tonally that often (even though it is conveyed in his voice over). To bring back the Malick comparison, his films feel more like they are from a universal viewpoint, one that exists outside of the film but not necessarily in the cold way of a Kubrick film. This feels somewhere in the middle of the two, of an outside viewpoint but one without much of an opinion of what is going on (Kubrick), but not because it’s above an opinion (Malick), but just because it doesn’t happen to have one.
The cinematography and the score certainly contribute to that. I love both on purely aesthetic merits, but in how it treats the story I’m not so sure. Fukunaga uses a lot of strong colors and slow motion, which makes the movie very pretty and artificial looking. The score is also strangely inspirational sounding at some points, with this sort of open oooommmm sound underlying many scenes. It’s hard to describe, but with how pretty the images and the sound are, the film sort of sends mixed messages. Is it a coming of age story about Agu and how he overcomes his tribulations or is a more straightforward tragedy of stolen innocence? Or is it the story of an outsider (Fukunaga) trying and failing to make something out of Agu’s story, looking at his struggle and being too emotionally paralyzed to form an opinion?
No matter which answer ends up being correct, Beasts of No Nation is definitely a film worth seeing. Those afraid of witnessing a child commit these unspeakable acts will not necessarily find it an easy watch, but I found it an easier watch than I suspected (perhaps because I was so busy trying to figure out what the film’s viewpoint was). It’s a beautiful film visually, and Attah and Elba’s performances adequately anchor the film. It’s the type of film that I might be able to make more of on a rewatch, but also the type of film that I’m not sure I’ll be able to make myself watch again.
“A boy. A boy is nothing. A boy is harmless? Does the boy have two eyes to see? The boy has two hands to strangle and fingers to pull triggers. That boy is very dangerous.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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