Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring: Idris Elba, Abraham Atta, Andrew Adote
A lot was expected of ‘Beasts Of No Nation’, partly due to the nature of its release – a film mainly distributed via Netflix – and partly because of the hype surrounding breakthrough director Cary Joji Fukunaga. His projects thus far have demonstrated great versatility, especially regarding subject matter. I think this is the first time I have watched a film where the story comes second in that conversation you have when discussing with friends; “I saw that Beasts Of No Nation yesterday, you know the one that’s on Netflix?” The plot may even come third, after “that one with Idris Elba in”, “yeah he’s decent him, have you seen Luther?” Maybe the conversation doesn’t even get to the story at all. It is an interesting commentary on how the future of film is developing, and what medium will soon be dominant in cinema.
The viewing experience of film is different to that of a series; you dedicate yourself to a film, whereas a series is more of a sit down and stay down for six hours. So, I tried to give ‘Beasts Of No Nation’ the optimum cinematic environment – Sunday night, no lights, biggest television I could find. Despite my self-imposed rules, I found myself looking at my phone and pausing the film to get food. I think the reason cinemas work is down to social convention. If you’re looking at your phone in the flicks and turn around to see hundreds of judgmental eyes glaring at you from around the room, you know you fucked up and you don’t look at it again. This, however, forces you to watch the film; to be part of it; to escape to that world, and Netflix just can’t do that, regardless of content.
Fukunaga is becoming known for making good actors really act. Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba are all good actors, and yet it takes a good project to unlock their talent and turn them into great actors. Since ‘True Detective’, both leads have gone on to develop their acting style and Idris Elba is unbelievably convincing in this. This picture has one standout performer, Abraham Attah, who plays Agu, and there is no doubt that Fukunaga has played a critical part in making the boy act. The film, though adapted from the novel of the same name, could have struggled for legitimacy – especially with a Hollywood director and a big name such as Elba. Within the first five minutes though, you are engulfed by the stark realism of this world, solely due to the authenticity Agu brings to the role. After seeing his mother and sister evacuated from his small village, and his brother and father shot by corrupt government forces, Agu wanders the jungle until he is captured and inaugurated in to a rebel battalion, led by the Commandant (Elba) and his second in command (Andrew Adote).
Immediately, Agu is indoctrinated in to the rebel atmosphere, the Commandant ordering a troop of soldiers aged 8-30 to run around the African back-country, pillaging and ransacking any government-controlled zones, ambushing convoys and hiding in the undergrowth. From the moment Agu is forced to make his first kill, he becomes one of the Commandant’s “favourites” and a reliance on drugs sees Agu’s mind fully departed from the innocent child we see in the opening scenes. This film pulls no punches; it is more than subtly hinted that Elba’s character is raping the young boys, and it takes a lot of confidence to get an actor of such a young age to play this kind of role convincingly, and for the film to stay cinematic, relevant and engaging. Fukunaga and his team have used subtle techniques that keep you watching – it would be easy to turn off when faced with such visceral material, yet you are intrigued and entranced by the colour palette – the rich green of the jungle, the warm sandy tones, the blue of the sky and the dark red of the blood. Even on a small screen, the vistas are cinematic. It also seems Fukunaga has a way of giving the lead actors some sort of enigmatic quality despite a questionable morality. Here, Elba has a furiousness, a rare frantic quality, and a clear God complex. But much in the way people are drawn to a cult leader, the viewer is drawn in to this sadistic family.
As the film concludes, some of the issues of this piece come to light. We can clearly see how this lifestyle is affecting Agu and the other child soldiers, and as the Commandant loses control of the group we see Agu return to some sort of normality in the safety of a rehabilitation centre. This film depicts the tortures of African civil war and child soldiers, and the action presents the massive emotional turmoil that these young boys go through, yet as we near the end of the film it winds up too quickly, without exploring the emotional battle Agu faces adjusting back to reality. Abraham Attah has already demonstrated his ability to portray the child soldier, and yet we don’t see the full story; the boy inside is neglected.
On the whole, this is a beautifully shot, important piece of cinema. It was a tough, emotional watch, even from the comfort of my bedroom, and yet it lost some of its impact due to the nature of release. The immediacy of this medium is great, but when was the last time you were blown away in your bedroom. Okay, bad example. Just imagine you watched ‘Avatar’ in your bedroom – a film with an average storyline, yet it is the biggest film ever made. I think for the importance of the story, ‘Beasts Of No Nation’ could have been a real heavyweight – it was really hard to find fault – yet once it finished I popped ‘The Office’ on and forgot all about it, which for such a strong film is a real shame.