Beasts of No Nation

Beasts of No Nation photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgWar is hell. The idea has been promoted before and here it is presented once again. This time through a series harrowing images that remain in the mind’s eye well after this combat film is over. The tale concerns Agu (Abraham Attah), a young West African boy affected by an unnamed civil war raging in his country. His mother and sisters escape, but his father is shot and killed. Agu is essentially kidnapped by militants who coerce him to join their rebel force. Their mercenary unit is headed up by a megalomaniacal leader only referred to as Commandant (Idris Elba).

Agu’s awareness of evil expands as the conflict rages on. This conversion forms the narrative in the capable hands of newcomer Abraham Attah. He is fascinating, both thoughtful and sincere. It’s a revelatory performance and the most compelling reason to discuss the picture. Idris Elba as the Commandant is also effective as an intimidating presence overseeing this rag tag team of soldiers. His dominant authority over these young men and boys as he molds them into soldiers is chilling. As the full extent of his predatory abuse is revealed, he becomes an even more reprehensible individual. The pessimism inherent in the perspective adheres close to convention. It is his meeting with the Supreme Commander (Jude Akuwudike) where the limits of the Commandant’s power are revealed. This is where the script finally explores something slightly more innovative.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga has shown a facility with different genres. He has gone from the Mexican gangland adventure Sin Nombre to an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This time he’s adapting another book, the 2005 debut novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala. Little detail is given as to what conflict this is and for what exactly are these various warring factions fighting. The lack of political context or commentary is a bit of a misstep in a chronicle about people who do indeed pick sides. Our protagonist, however doesn’t pick a side. He’s merely swept up into the maelstrom of violence. The saga revels in one war crime after another. The way people intellectually justify their point of view is clearly not the point. Beasts of No Nation is about a child’s loss of innocence. Not a novel idea, but at least one presented with a pair of laudable performances.

Note: Beasts of No Nation debuted simultaneously on Netflix and to theaters in limited release. It’s a tough watch particularly at a punishing 2 hours 17 minutes. The temptation to break away from this bleak story is pretty high. I admittedly did not see this in one sitting. I do consider my wavering desire to finish the movie, relevant. Definitely more of an immersive experience uninterrupted in a theater.

11-02-15

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16 Responses to “Beasts of No Nation”

  1. Watched this last week and was really impressed by the performances. Didn’t bother me that the politically landscape wasn’t painted as the journey of this boy was the main focus.

  2. I too watched this on Netflix with an interruption. However I can’t remember if this interruption was to relieve the stress of watching a bleak story, or was for another reason. Or both.

    At the time of viewing I wasn’t particularly concerned by the lack of a precise political/national context.

    As commenter Nostra says, the where wasn’t the main focus of the story. But as you said – picking a side is usually a choice, but for Agu it wasn’t. But had we known the where and the who, Agu’s story would not have changed.

    • I wasn’t particularly concerned with the lack of political context while watching either. But upon reflection after the film was over, I thought, well that was just a chronicle of depravation. I’ve seen that idea done before – and with more depth.

  3. 2 1/2! That’s harsh and in NY opinion certainly worth higher praise. Your points are understandable though and on any other given day, if I wasn’t ready for it I too could probably have swung left of 3 stars. But for me there was too much that I had never really seen in a film before and I found the cinematography hypnotic.

    • When I read my review it doesn’t sound harsh, but 2 ½ stars is indeed a negative review.

      When people ask, “Should I see this film?” I think about my answer. 3 is still a “yes” and 2 ½ is a “no.” Since this felt more like a series of abuses to watch than a fully formed story, I couldn’t bring myself to recommend the film to people.

      Honestly I almost didn’t finish it, but that was more because I was watching it at home.

  4. This was a borderline torturous experience, and excellent point about the lengthy runtime too, I forgot it was closer to 2.5 hrs than to 2. In hindsight, in the same way I couldn’t imagine enduring The Passion of the Christ on the big screen, I would have been tempted to take a ‘bathroom break’ in the middle of this one. Ha! Well-acted and beautifully shot but it’s one I won’t return to.

  5. I’m surprised you only gave this one a 2/4 star rating. I really, really liked this movie despite it’s content. I think Abraham Attah is a tour de force of an actor…I hope the Academy recognizes him for this performance!

  6. Good review Mark. I liked this one a little bit more than you did, but I still appreciate your thoughts. Keep it up!

  7. Overly long and tough to watch. I don’t like the idea of kids being trained to kill. However, I thought the young boy was excellent. Idris was good too. 2 1/2 stars.

  8. I’ve heard the performances in Beasts of No Nation are compelling. Sounds like they are based on your description of Attah and Elba’s turns. I haven’t seen much from Cary Fukunaga, but I really liked his adaption of Jane Eyre and his direction on Season 1 of True Detective. I agree that the lack of political context or commentary seems like a misstep in this kind of narrative. Haven’t caught this film yet, but I will note that it took you more than one attempt at viewing and factor it into my decision on when to watch it.

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