In a recent interview with Anne Thompson of Indiewire.com, director Cary Fukunaga revealed that since graduating from film school in 1999, he has ardently focused on the topic of child soldiers. A decade after graduating, he directed his first feature film, “Sin Nombre.” The dramatic thriller about a Honduran immigrant gave the film community its first sign of the director’s greatness. However, despite of the success of this film, I could not have foreseen the towering achievement of “Beasts of No Nation.” Fukunaga’s long-held passion for the subject matter of child soldiers is on full display in every frame.
“Beasts of No Nation” is adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s 2006 novel of the same name. The novel is about an African boy named Agu who finds himself at the center of a poorly-organized resistance army fighting in a violent civil war. Like the book, the film doesn’t identify the country. This approach allows the film’s center to be personal rather than political.
Agu is played by newcomer actor Abraham Attah, who is a natural. Through the worst of experiences, Agu sees the decline of the resistance with a calm bitterness, a side effect of the horrible things he’s being forced to do. He is shepherded by “the Commandant” (Idris Elba), the adult leader of the young battalion. The Commandant seems wise in his own demented way, but as the story unfolds, there is a supreme gloom to his psyche that only Elba could have pulled off.
Fukunaga’s direction and writing cannot be understated. The beginning of the film helps us understand Agu’s fervently religious family. This introduction is not in the book, but it provides a foundation for Agu’s narration, in which he goes through a crisis of faith. It’s amazing to see how this narration and Attah’s on-screen personification of Agu work in concert with one another. There is a striking sequence where he travels through a trench of red mud and contemplates that, because he can no longer feel God’s presence, he can now only pray to his missing mother. It’s reminiscent of the best theology scenes in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”
The cat-and-mouse game of control between Agu and the Commandant is a story you can’t help but get lost in. It’s easy to distance yourself as a first-world viewer from this kind of a situation in a third-world country, but Fukunaga’s perceptive direction and the performances of the two leading actors make that distance impossible.
In the first few days of shooting the film, Fukunaga’s original cameraman pulled a hamstring, forcing him off the project. Fukunaga stepped in, so he was literally behind the camera for the majority of the movie. His cinematography is gorgeous. It does not glorify or glamorize the violence, but it does make vibrant use of color and composition to enhance the frantic nature of the action. This contributes to the intensity of Agu’s emotional arc throughout the film.
The other aspect of the film most worth noting is that it is Netflix’s first wholly original narrative release. It has only been released in select theaters nationwide, but it can be seen online by anyone with a Netflix subscription. This new release model may prove to be too revolutionary for Hollywood for the time being, but I am so thrilled that a movie this compelling can be seen by as many people as possible.
The final moments of “Beasts” address the title in a revealing way, leaving Abraham Attah the enormous task of tackling many of the film’s themes in one incredibly powerful speech. Not only is he up to the challenge, but it is a moment that pulls the whole film together. It is what emboldens me to put an exclamation mark on this statement: “Beasts of No Nation” is the best film of the year!
“Beasts of No Nation” = 5/5
“Beasts of No Nation” is now available to stream on Netflix and playing in select theaters nationwide.
(Unrated, contains mature thematic elements including strong violence, language, suggestive content and drug use, all involving children)