Film Review: Beasts of No Nation

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Written by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Starring: Abraham Attah and Ibris Elba

Beasts of No Nation tackles a subject that is rarely touched upon in mainstream cinema. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga has been outspoken about the difficulty of getting the film funded. The film has since been purchased by Netflix, giving it a wider audience but also subsequently hurting the films theatrical release.

The film follows Agu (Attah) a young boy growing up in an unnamed African country. The fact that the country is unspecified is important to the overall impact of the film. Fukunaga is not as much interested in the particulars but rather the humanity behind the story. We are taken in by Agu through interior monologue. He is content with his modest life in his village as civil war encroaches, his innocence a false sense of security to the films impending violence. At the beginning of the narrative Fukunaga cleverly places our protagonist in a frame within a frame, creating a distance between audience and subject. It is this distance that the director will endeavour to breakdown throughout the narrative.

When war finally reaches his village Agu’s life is torn to shreds as he is lucky to escape into the surrounding jungle amid gunfire, bloodshed and executions. Agu is consequently taken in by a tribe of rebels led by the charismatic Commandant (Elba). Beasts of No Nation is strongest in its depiction of the systematic transformation of an innocent young boy into a ruthless, bloodthirsty child solider. During a cult like initiation Agu’s innocent spirit dies as the Commandant converts him into a pawn in a war whose purpose is not readily apparent.

Fukunaga, who is also responsible for the cinematography, has a knack for creating the bleakest of atmospheres. Like in the first season of True Detective (2014), Fukunaga makes his character’s reality the audience’s nightmare. His interest in the occult permeates the script. Children with automatic weapons are brainwashed by repetitive chants supposedly in the name of their country’s sovereignty. Hatred and oppression are legitimised by revenge.

Beasts of No Nation forces its audience to contemplate at the dire circumstances of child soldiers in Africa. It doesn’t have the same cinema verite style as Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008) but its visceral impact ensures Agu’s character arc is felt. During the narrative Agu is changed from an innocent young man to a work torn self-proclaimed old man whose PTSD is impenetrable to psychiatrists who haven’t lived his pain.

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