Beasts of No Nation
To watch Beasts of No Nation is to see life during a civil war of increasing strife through the eyes of a child.
Shot in Ghana, Beasts of No Nation takes place in an unnamed African state where insurrection is rife. After a brief bit of idyllic life in a small village the film plunges into a relentless hellfire of war.
A young boy, whom we come to call Agu, watches helplessly as his family is shot before his eyes. Abu manages to run like hell and hide in the nearby forest.
Eventually, the rebels, led by a charismatic leader named Commandant, capture Agu. As played by Idris Elba the Commandant tows the party line, even obeying his Supreme Commander when it means a demotion. What follows are so many battle scenes that it’s hard to figure out where you draw the line on good guys and bad guys. Even UN soldiers can’t seem to tell warring factions apart.
Abraham Attah in his film debut as Agu goes from a frightened and grieving lad to a murderous thug. The first killing is made easier in the knowledge that he is applying a machete into the skull of the person who shot his father. But after some battle scars Agu is killing at random. Agu shoots a woman being raped in the head as if that will ease her pain. It’s as if he realizes that he’s too young to fuck but old enough to kill.
We see Agu’s reality in a subjective shot that shows him imagining native people in tribal costumes walking alongside the soldiers. It’s as if in his tiny mind he brings his imaginary friends along with him into battle. The scene shifts to a solarized red hue – perhaps the images are real and depict Agu’s deceased ancestors.
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga has previously helmed the feature films Jane Eyre and Sin Nombre but his best work was directing the first season (eight episodes) of True Detective. For Beasts, Fukunaga constantly ups the ante of war movie clichés to bring to the screen something rich and fresh. Fukunaga’s use of music and sounds are surreal and ethereal, almost something that you would hear in a Herzog film. The characters are animals in the truest sense, and Fukunaga even gives Elba a hairstyle that goes up in the back so that his head resembles an ape.
Beasts of No Nation takes no prisoners. Even after Agu quits his military life his days as a child are marred by a loss of innocence. Beasts of No Nation open this weekend at the River Oaks Three.
— Michael Bergeron