Beasts of No Nation

Movie Information

The Story: Uncompromising account of a child soldier in an African war.  The Lowdown: Stark, powerful, finely crafted, but inclined to redundancy in its excessive length. Still, its unflinching portrait of the unthinkable is unforgettable.
Genre: War Drama
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre)
Starring: Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Emmanuel Nii Adorn Quaye, Ama K. Abebrese, Richard Pepple, Opeyemi Fagbohungbe
Rated: NR



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.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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2 thoughts on “Beasts of No Nation

  1. Ken Hanke

    Well, far more people looked at this review than went to see the movie.

    • Matt

      Well, 3 million people watched in on Netflix in it’s first weekend. I read that the filmmakers are quite happy with the wide audience exposure and producers happy with Netflix’s huge bid for such a small budget film. So I’m glad that it is deemed a success by all involved. Compared to movies like the Big Short and Bridge of Spies, it’s a shame it didn’t get into the oscars at all. But I bet its platform is as much the reason for that as it’s challenging topic.

      I wast not bothered by the things you were bothered by in this movie. I liked the thick accents without subtitles. I don’t find the movie to be redundant or to be too long. I can’t think of any scenes or story points I’d leave out, except maybe Striker’s final scene. It was a rise and fall movie as much as a depiction of the child’s immersion in a nightmare world. It seemed to need all of it’s scenes for that.

      I loved it. I think it was groundbreaking art. Not an easy film to watch but for me provided a powerful sense of humanity in its raw and insightful depiction of what young soldier impressment really looks like.

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