The good news is that Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation is a film of power, grace and often subtle beauty. It is made with artistry and care that is evident in nearly every shot. The bad news is that it’s at least 30 minutes too long, and its young lead actor, Abraham Attah, should have been given subtitles even when speaking English. What’s particularly unfortunate here is that young Attah gives a truly remarkable performance as Agu, the child-soldier whose story the film tells — so remarkable, in fact, that his sometimes incomprehensible dialogue doesn’t diminish it, though it is distracting. By far, the greater problem is that 137-minute running time, and even that doesn’t cripple the film.
Based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala — adapted by director Fukunaga, who also photographed the film — Beasts is not an easy watch. It is unflinching in detailing (often brutally) the story of this boy, who is separated from what remains of his family in a civil war and trained to be a soldier in a platoon led by a volatile figure only known as the Commandant (Idris Elba). This isn’t the first movie to address the topic of children being used as soldiers, but it’s apt to be the most widely seen one — even with the four biggest of the big-box theater chains (Regal, AMC, Cinemark and Carmike) boycotting the film because of the way Netflix is handling its distribution. It is also quite possibly the most harrowing, by virtue of its refusal to contextualize the war being depicted. The film is completely hemmed in by the limits of Agu’s inability to process the war himself. It’s impossible to tell who is fighting whom or why. It’s simply living a nightmare. And a nightmare it is.
Following a deliberately — and not wholly successful — deceptive setup done in a lighter tone, Beasts quickly descends into its nightmare world, reaching a kind of fever pitch when Agu is forced to execute an enemy soldier (if the captive even is the enemy or a soldier). Fukunaga spares us nothing, and with the aid of Dan Romer’s insistent, intensifying score, he builds a scene that is almost unbearable. And this is but the first of many nearly unwatchable scenes — scenes that are apt to make even the most jaded viewer cringe. This uncompromising approach is both the film’s greatness and its greatest trap. It isn’t that these scenes become numbing. It’s more that they become redundant and somewhat distancing in a way I can’t imagine was intended. It’s impossible not to be horrified by what’s happening — especially since Agu is increasingly aware that these actions are wrong — but it’s hard to truly relate to him.
Don’t misunderstand. Beasts is a good film. It’s even a film that flirts with greatness on several occasions. As noted, young Attah gives an impressively nuanced performance as Agu. Also noteworthy is the complexity of Idris Elba’s performance as the Commandant. I won’t detail the trajectory of his characterization, except to note that it’s frequently surprising. This is also a magnificent looking film. Fukunaga evidences a firm control of imagery. That it falls shy of being a masterpiece is regrettable, but it’s still a film worth having. Not Rated, but contains violence, horrific images, sexuality and language and is not for children.