Beasts of No Nation (2015)
“Child. Captive. Killer.”
Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Cast: Abraham Attah, Emmanuel Affadzi, Ricky Adelayitor
Synopsis: A drama based on the experiences of Agu, a child soldier fighting in the civil war of an unnamed African country.
Although we all know that reality is different, in the movies, the theatre of war is one in which children rarely have a part to play. In the real world the kids are, in some ways, war’s biggest victims. They see the only world they know systematically destroyed for no reason they can possibly understand; they accompany their parents into gas chambers, they are raped and beaten and killed and, in some remarkable circumstances, absorbed into the mechanics of war, handed a rifle and an oversize helmet and taught how to kill. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation explores this process of an innocent child’s indoctrination into a bloody, violent civil war with a curiously clinical eye that somehow fails to generate the kind of emotional impact you would expect from such an emotive subject, even though he appears to have done almost everything right: he tells the story from the appropriate perspective – that of pre-teen Agu – showcases the brutality and chaos of war, the sense of natural order breaking down, and embodies in the monstrous yet avuncular Commandant, the endless, unresolvable clash between the ideological convictions and cynical opportunism of the practitioners of war. But, for all that, the film left me cold…
Beasts of No Nation opens like a domestic drama, describing the impoverished but happy domestic life of young Agu (Abraham Attah) and his family in an unspecified African country. Agu shares a close but typically mischievous relationship with his older brother, and has a wary fascination with a Grandfather who appears to be slipping into dementia. The impending approach of Civil War means that women and children must be evacuated from their village, but Agu’s father is unable to buy his son passage to safety, which means the boy must stay with him as government troops draw near. Agu manages to escape when the troops raid the village and kill all the men, but falls into the hands of a rebel unit led by the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba), who takes a personal interest in the young boy’s development as he is indoctrinated into the rebels methods and beliefs.
As bleak and depressing as Beasts of No Nation is, it never feels quite as harrowing as one would expect. Its obvious antecedent is Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985), in which a young boy is literally driven insane by his war experiences, but it stands comparison to that film only in terms of its similar plot. There are moments of brutal violence in Beasts of No Nation which are unpleasant to watch, but we feel discomfort as observers rather than an empathetic connection with Agu. Although apparently based on a true story, the film is careful not to draw overt parallels with any particular country or individual, a ploy which distances it from its factual roots to some degree.
Whatever the film’s faults, they don’t lie with Abraham Attah, who gives a remarkably prescient performance. Despite the presence of a recognised international star in Elba, the film’s level of success rests squarely at the feet of the boy, and he proves more than equal to the task. Elba also gives a nuanced performance as the Commandant, although, to its detriment, the film hardly touches upon important parts of their relationship which deserve to be explored in much greater detail.
(Reviewed 24th October 2015)