Beasts of No Nation Cary Joji Fukunaga

Beasts of No Nation Review: Power and Growing Pains

Monday, November 02, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Beasts of No Nation

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Writer: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five
Available on Netflix and in limited release now.

Cary Joji Fukunaga is a budding filmmaking master. Through two excellent features, 2009's Sin Nombre and 2011's Jane Eyre, and his work helming every episode of True Detective's first season, Fukunaga has displayed a calm, measured, color-saturated coldness that nonetheless had humanity flowing through his veins.

But Fukunaga is still in the process of budding, rather than having fully flowered. His latest feature, Beasts of No Nation, which is Netflix's first foray into producing original films, has all the signposts of Fukunaga's style to date. It deals in the murky, often miserable world of those who abuse power. Its colors, particularly the greens of the African bush, pop with a heightened quality that suggests something just to the left of reality in order to help the viewer reach understanding with the subject on a metaphorical level. It displays the traumatic nature of growing up. It has the camaraderie that grows between those most stuck in the middle of existential horror. It has, in Idris Elba's performance as the calculated, cynical Commandant, the seductive charisma that leads one to become powerful. Most dazzlingly, it deploys several long, uninterrupted takes with a camera following its characters through myriad nightmare-scapes of a country deep in the throes of civil war.

Everything in the preceding paragraph is borderline extraordinary use of the cinematic medium. It is harrowing, it is beautiful, heart-wrenching, awe-inducing stuff. For long stretches, Beasts of No Nation works on all those levels, creating moments of deep understanding and the kind of empathy that clenches your stomach and fists with profound anger at the injustice of it all.

But there are at least three flaws, mostly structural, that keep Beasts of No Nation from achieving its full potential.

Early in the film, we get an extended look at the small-town life for Agu (Abraham Attah) and his family, especially his relationships with his father and older brother. Theirs is a stressed-out, striving family, but a recognizable one in that they appreciate the time spent with each other, whether it's by burping up a storm at the dinner table or hawking “imagination TVs” (the frame of a television without a screen) to the military “peacekeeping” forces at the edge of town. There are silly, teasing insults tossed between the brothers and an exasperated, “Why can't you listen to what I'm trying to tell you?” quality to the father, who still can't help but smile at his ragamuffin children. Agu's mother and little sister are largely window dressing for these moments, but when it comes time to put the film's plot in motion, Fukunaga enlists them as the emotional drivers. Agu spends so little time with the female members of his family that their eventual separation when the peace in their town breaks down is not as strong as it can be. We are left to fill in the blanks as the music swells. We know a boy being forcibly removed from his mother's care is a horrible thing, but the movie could stand to build that relationship before it goes for the surface-level obviousness – it's clearly possible given the rich kinship shown between Agu and his male family.

Despite slightly dropping the ball on the Agu-mother relationship, Fukunaga still nails its payoff later in the film, during one of the aforementioned long takes. Agu, now a boy soldier in the Commandant's battalion, goes with his fellow troops to storm a building. Inside they find a woman and young girl hiding from the gunshots. With his mind clouded by trauma and brainwashing, Agu mistakes the woman for his mother. What follows is emotional devastation provoked by the callousness of war in a way rarely encountered in film. It is largely a sympathy built in the moment and directed at the two innocents the viewer does not know, their plight an assault on human decency. And yet, if the buildup of Agu's relationship with his mother had been handled more deftly at the outset, this moment would have been an all-timer of cinematic tragedy – it's almost there anyway, but for different reasons than are perhaps intended.

The next flaw is in how Fukunaga handles the climax of the picture. Elba's Commandant, who spends the film as a monster who nonetheless is totally understandable as the type who can garner a huge following, is at the end of his rope, boxed in by circumstance, made impotent and irrelevant by the decisions of those above his pay grade – we all answer to somebody, even if we disagree with their decisions, he wisely tells Agu. The Englishman Elba has learned a thing or two from his time in America and the football culture we have, as he fires up the troops like an adrenaline- (or something else-) fueled linebacker leading the team onto the field at the Super Bowl. He does this while twisting their minds in the downtime between battles with promises of glory, freedom, and humorous tales of women's desire for them – before abusing them irreparably in quiet, blood-stained offices he commandeers along the warpath. He deserves every comeuppance he can get. But the way things come to a head is handled in a presentational way, with the camera largely stationary and removed from the emotional heat of the moment. There is not enough time given to the Commandant, Agu, the other soldiers, and particularly not the audience, to truly twist in the wind of suspense at this moment. The tension that should be here is replaced by an exhausted resignation, a desire to end a horrifying journey -- and it is over in a hurry when it could, and arguably should, keep twisting the screws for longer. On one hand, this could be a movie zigging when it is expected to zag, and that is the correct instinct for this instance. However, the way that zigging is explored could still stand to ratchet up the tension several notches.

And finally, Beasts of No Nation ends in a ragged way. There is an epilogue attached that goes on for several minutes, a short story in itself. It acknowledges the damage done to Agu, the things he was forced to do, the things he will never be able to escape, but within the context of the movie, they are too pat. No, Agu will never be “okay” in the sense that a comfortable American will be, but it is not in the spirit of the rest of the film to show him in a place of physical safety. Particularly not after Fukunaga gives himself a perfect, semi-safe-yet-still-open ending right before the epilogue kicks in.

All of this makes Beasts of No Nation sound like a mess and a failure, when it is anything but. It is perhaps more fascinating in an intellectual sense because of its flaws, even if its emotional resonance – which it still carries in spades for much of its runtime – can sometimes be less than perfect. Fukunaga, who also wrote, produced, and did his own cinematography in this project of true auteurism, may benefit from a few more collaborative voices on his next film. No matter what, he is one of American film's most essential voices working today. If Beasts of No Nation is his growing pains movie, the future will be phenomenal.  

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