Has an epic sweep befitting of a powerful story set in the heart of an African civil war, but Fukunaga’s eye for humanity amid the brutality helps to ground it in emotional terms.
Dir. Cary Fukunaga
2015 | USA/Ghana | Drama/War | 137 mins | 2.39:1 | English & Akan
R21 (passed clean) for strong violence, disturbing images and coarse language
Cast: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba
Plot: A drama based on the experiences of Agu, a child soldier fighting in the civil war of an unnamed African country.
Awards: Won Marcello Mastroianni Award & Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice); Nom. for Best Supporting Actor (Golden Globes)
Subject Matter: Heavy
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on Netflix)
Cary Fukunaga hasn’t made many feature films (though he is most famous for his television work True Detective (2014) and Maniac (2018)), but the three he has helmed so far are well-regarded and assuring works. His excellent debut, Sin Nombre (2009), shows his ability in portraying social realism with a political slant through an ‘illegal immigrant’ story shot in Mexico.
His follow-up, Jane Eyre (2011), an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s famous novel that stars Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, has been considered a decent if understated imagining. But it is his third film, made for Netflix, that is by far the best showcase of his talents behind the camera.
Shot in Ghana and setting the narrative against the backdrop of a fictional African civil war, Beasts of No Nation has one of the finest performances of any child actor in the 2010s, featuring first-time actor Abraham Attah who won the Marcello Mastroianni Award at Venice, where the film competed for the Golden Lion.
“I just want to be happy in this life.”
Attah plays Agu, a young boy separated from his family due to an unexpected escalation of civil war in their homeland, as opposing factions seek to eliminate the other whom they deem as ‘traitors’ or ‘rebels’. But perhaps the term ‘beasts’, as echoed in the film’s title, is a more apt descriptor as humans seek to maim and kill each other (very often their own race) for the sake of their land and freedom.
The United Nations, in a few shots involving UN vehicles surveying the destruction or personnel guarding the borders, are present but can’t do much. It is this setting of inevitability within unpredictability that gives Beasts of No Nation its forceful power.
Running over two hours in length, Fukunaga (who also serves as cinematographer) gives the film an epic sweep as it follows Agu who is forced to be a child solider under a rebel commandant played with magnetic charisma by Idris Elba.
There are scenes of disturbing brutality, but Fukunaga’s eye for humanity amid the chaos and violence helps to ground the film in emotional terms, so much so that we identify with Agu’s devastating plight and how he might never ever escape from the trauma. It is a tragic tale of war, but Fukunaga gives us just enough of a tinge of optimism to hold onto, however barely.