Cary Fukunaga’s African child soldier drama Beasts of No Nation is tough-medicine cinema, yet most definitely not the film I was expecting. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it in one way or another after viewing it last weekend, and it’s a film I’m likely to revisit rather soon, thanks to Netflix running it as a streaming option on their site (Landmark Theaters, the only chain that’s theatrically presenting the film, doesn’t operate in my area). In Beasts of No Nation, it’s the sheer force of the filmmaking that immediately struck me; it’s clear that Fukunaga is an admirer and student of Mann and Malick, as his film echoes both Heat and The Thin Red Line on more than one occasion, be it from a sonic or image standpoint. The film is violent, but not as violent as you might expect, and I’m wondering if the film should have been even more upfront and explicit with its atrocities, but I think it’s the artistic subversion from the expected norm that is most startling during the film’s numerous sequences of bloody carnage and combat. And make no mistake – you’re definitely treated to some disturbing moments of emotional and physical abuse – it’s just handled in a more experiential manner. In a sense, Fukunaga has made an existential journey film starring an eight year old, and as such, there are sequences that feel incredibly impressionistic at times, literally like seeing life and all of the horrors that it can offer through the fleeting glimpses of a person too young to fully comprehend all of the details. My parents are here one minute…and gone the next. I’m all alone in the jungle…until I’m not. There’s someone here who wants to take care of me…but I don’t truly understand the methods to his madness. Fukunaga explores the notion of lost generations, children stripped of their familial identities, never to have them returned to any sort of normalcy.
It’s no surprise that Idris Elba is startling and fantastic as the corrupt ring-leader of the child soldiers, and it’s truly scary to watch him operate in this film. From one moment to the next, you can never truly predict his behavior, and the way Elba interacts with the children has a stinging realism that makes the film’s most harrowing moments all the more potent. Child actor Abraham Attah, making his feature film debut as Agu, is nothing short of spectacular, but not in the traditional sense of what you expect from a movie star or even an amateur phenomenon; he has the smarts, the poise, and seemingly the understanding of the material to make the toughest scenes in the film all the more challenging and rewarding to observe. Shot on location in Africa, this film has a fevered, nightmarish quality, with many of Fukunaga’s lush and beautiful images (he also operated as his own cinematographer) leaving a lasting impact that will be hard to shake for days. From the sight of grenades being duct taped into the mouths of prisoners to the surreal moments with the burning embers of tree branches that have been blasted by rockets from helicopters, Beasts of No Nation envelopes the viewer with a tactile sense of place and unnerving atmosphere, with gun shots consistently heard off in the distance, and bullets casually flying overhead. Dan Romer’s dynamic soundtrack builds to some nearly overwhelming crescendos of orchestral music, while the fluid editing keeps the two hour and 15 minute runtime moving at a very fast clip without ever feeling rushed. This isn’t a film to watch and immediately snap off a quick judgement; it needs to marinate and simmer and become fully processed after viewing, as it’s a film that dares to look at a subject that we only get soundbytes of from our meaningless mainstream news cycle. There’s also a faint whiff of racism in that Fukunaga was reportedly turned down by every major studio, with only Netflix having the temerity to finance and release this long-in-the-coming work of punishing art. Beasts of No Nation finished on a note that I never expected, and offers a journey of purposefully draining dramatics in an effort to shock and rattle the viewer. Ignoring this film shouldn’t be an option.