Beasts of No Nation
The Unmissable New Drama from Cary Fukunaga
Beasts of No Nation starts on a somewhat bittersweet note. Young Agu (Abraham Attah) and his friend Dike (Emmanuel Affadzi) are casting actors among a mob of soccer-playing children. The lucky few would feature in Agu’s soap opera and Kung Fu movie as he tries to sell an “imagination tv,” the plastic frame he snatched from his father’s old television set. These are not the mischievous frolics of a bunch of schoolchildren during a mid-morning recess; they are merely the deeds of a bunch of children, forced out of school by the neighboring war, who must keep busy and scrape by.
Yet the peace is soon threatened as the buffer zone, an unnamed African village, where Agu and his family live, is breached, and the village men decide to hold their ground. After his father could not broker his escape, Agu is separated from his mother and must stay with his father and brother. When the armed forces of the National Reformation Council (NRC) enter the village, the men are mistaken for rebels and shot on site. Only Agu escapes and after hours of wandering in the nearby forest, he is captured by the rebel Native Defense Forces (NDF), led by Commandant (Idris Elba). Instead of killing Agu, Commandant trains him to become a warrior and later inducts him into his forces. Beasts of No Nation tells Agu’s harrowing transformation into a child-soldier forced into the unspeakable.
The film, based on the eponymous novel by Uzodinma Iweala, is written, directed and shot by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre, True Detective season 1). Though notable for Abraham Attah’s and Idris Elba’s performances and Fukunaga’s flawless script, its biggest strength lies in the writer-director’s sensible and tactful treatment of delicate scenes. By striking a balance between what the camera shows and what it doesn’t and how long it holds the shot, Fukunaga goes in the opposite direction from Steve McQueen in 12 Years a Slave. Where McQueen builds up to more graphic, longer scenes, Fukunaga mitigates graphic scenes as he drives the narrative forward. Beasts is a gruesome tale told through the discerning and delicate eye of Cary Fukunaga.
Fukunaga’s use of many an acronym to represent the multitude of warring factions throughout the film — NDF, NRC, PLF … — is a device that, by no means a weakness, is meant to echo a tumultuous and bewildering situation. While it’s unclear whether these fictional organizations act as a proxy for real-world ones, and while the viewer is not offered any explanation as to who and what they are, the narrative flow is seamless all the same and the viewers’ ability to follow along intact. Fukunaga remains faithful to the book and, crucially, offers a window into his protagonist’s psychological evolution through voice-overs. Often used by unseasoned filmmakers to counteract a weak script or plug plot holes, the voice-overs, here delivered by Agu, perfectly blend into the story and allow the viewer to witness his transformation first-hand: from his “God everything is always changing” to “God I have killed a man but I am knowing too it is the right thing to be doing;” from “God are you watching what we are doing?” to “Mother, I can only be talking to you now because God is not listening.”
When Agu is forced to stay behind after a greedy taxi driver, that his father payed to take his mother and baby sister to safety, would not allow him aboard, he desperately tries to reunite with his mother, fighting his way through scores of unforgiving arms pushing him way, chasing the car to no avail. The scene, and there are many more, reveals Attah’s natural talent: his Agu is raw, delicate, heartbreaking. Opposite Attah is Idris Elba whose Commandant, powerful, charismatic and manipulative, briefly becomes a substitute father figure for Agu, and who, it later turns out, is yet another pawn in a merciless war gambit. Elba’s matter-of-fact performance gives Commandant a bone-chilling, fiercely calm nature. Yet despite Elba’s undeniable screen presence, it is Attah, the non-actor, who truly shines with a performance of an unfathomable beauty.
The film’s first graphic scene occurs after Agu, freshly out of basic training, is inducted into the NDF and sent out on his first mission. After the rebels ambush a convoy and take a man hostage, Commandant orders Agu to kill him with what appears to be a blunt machete. When Agu and Strika, a fellow NDF child-soldier, deal blow after blow after blow, the camera is on the hostage’s bleeding head before it shifts to Agu and Strika; as they keep at it, the camera is battered with blood and brain matter. The horrifying scene lasts close to two minutes: from the moment Commandant eggs Agu on to the last drop of blood to hit your screen.
Remarkably, Fukunaga’s modus operandi henceforth is to decrease the intensity of graphic scenes by showing less and holding the shots for shorter times. Agu’s sexual abuse by Commandant, for instance, is implied not shown. Through proper editing, the viewer is let in on the events immediately preceding and following the scene. Agu’s demeanor — the heavy breathing, the skewed walk, the moodiness the next morning — leaves no room for doubt. During a killing spree involving a little girl and NDF soldiers high on Brown-brown, Fukunaga again shows restraint by revealing as little as possible for just the right amount of time.
Steve McQueen’s approach in 12 Years a Slave is the antipode to Fukunaga’s as McQueen builds gradually, revealing more graphic content and favoring single long takes as the narrative moves forward. The film, set in the pre-civil war United States, is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American man from New York, who is abducted and sold into slavery in the South. In one particular scene early on, Solomon is seen twitching as he hangs from a tree, while slaves go about their business in the background. The shot is held for about a minute and a half before the camera switches to another angle and Solomon’s woes continue. In another scene towards the end Patsey, a friend of Solomon’s, is savagely flogged by Edwin Epps, a sadistic slave-owner who regularly rapes her. The scene is a very graphic single long take that lasts three minutes where the camera does not shy away from showing Patsey’s agonizing moans and the rotting flesh on her back.
While both 12 Years a Slave and Beasts of No Nation are worthy of the highest praise for doing their stories justice, what truly sets Beasts apart is its rewarding ending: the cry of hope that echoes through the very last frame, intimating that all is not lost.