When it comes to the issue of Child Soldiers, I feel confident saying most of us agree it’s a terrible thing. Forcing young boys and girls to abandon their childhood and commit violent and unspeakable acts against other human beings until they meet the bullet is as close to pure evil as you get. But a more complicated question, and one I have never been unable to answer, is at what point does some poor indoctrinated youth stop being the victim, and start being just another monster. Tragic as this life being thrust upon them is, there’s no way around the fact that sooner or later they are the ones feeding the cycle. Are they forgiven for every later transgression for being conscripted earlier, or are they damned the moment they choose their life over another? To the outside observer redemption seems to be prescribed once they put the guns down, whether through liberation… or the other way. But to the child who survived their terrible tour, the guilt would only just be starting. It’s an uncomfortable question that may be impossible to answer, but it’s one that Beasts of No Nation bravely explores.
Directed, shot and adapted (from Uzodinma Iweala’s book of the same name) by Cary Joji Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation introduces us to the charming and imaginative Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy enjoying life in an unspecified West African country. With civil strife crashing down around them, Agu’s family attempt to flee their village, some successfully, and others less fortunate. After seeing those left behind murdered by the government’s soldiers, Agu, alone and starving, is found and recruited by a rebel militia led by Idris Elba’s nameless Commandant.
As you probably would have guessed, this is a particularly somber film, but as much as Fukunaga excels with this particular tone, he realises that central to this story is the theme of innocence lost. Brief though it is, Beasts smartly spends time establishing who Agu was before tragedy overcame him, allowing us to not just view him as another faceless victim, but as a charismatic young figure we are robbed of getting to know. These early moments of the film are gentle and smile-inducing, providing an essential contrast to the dire state the film eases into. Unfortunately, as well as the rest of the film is constructed, it starts to lose its personality as it gets into the heavier material, never really giving you a moment of levity or hope with which to catch your breath. It may sound strange to criticise a film like this for being so austere, but the melancholy does begin to stagnate in the absence of anything to break it up.
Luckily, Fukunaga revels in the world of all-consuming angst and hopelessness, and has an incredible eye for finding beauty in the darkest of places. For its modest budget, Beasts of No Nation is beautifully composed, with far more being communicated with the lens of Fukunaga’s camera than the words on his page. Earthy reds and greens dominate the film’s lush and saturated colour palate, painting a dangerous and vibrant world for these boys to fall through the cracks of. Even though the action and effects are solid and betray the film’s budgetary limitations, Fukunaga makes the decision to keep the camera on Agu and the rest of the cast rather than indulging in the battles for which the audience (nor the soldiers, really) have no real stake in. One sequence in particular, featuring the Commandant marching confidently with no gun drawn toward the camera as he inspires and chants on his brainwashed battalion, is a perfect example of the director’s ability to communicate complex ideas and character beats into simple and unassuming shots.
It’s always a concern with child actors being made to carry the weight of such a heavy subject, especially when they are previously untested. Thankfully, Attah (making his acting debut) and the rest of the young cast here are more than up to the task. The crippling guilt, the nervous fear and rage, and the impressionable innocence of Agu are all handled perfectly by Attah, who slowly blends them into one homogenous and inhuman mindset as he retreats further and further into himself. But as wonderfully defined as he is, Agu does become one of the film’s biggest flaws by virtue of being such an ineffectual character. To a point, it serves the thesis to have this child, who was a leader to his friends and siblings, robbed of his identity and living to the whim and mercy of these men and forces so much larger than him. Agu may be an incredibly sympathetic character, but to having a protagonist with no real control of his actions or the film’s trajectory creates undeniable narrative complications.
More successful a character, if a little less defined, is the film’s villain, Idris Elba’s Commandant. Elba is undoubtedly the film’s most marketable element, and for an actor so historically intense and engrossing, there is an expectation for this to be a showstopper performance. While I can’t possibly fault Elba’s delivery, the Commandant is a more gentler and manipulative monster than expected, without the material needed for the definitive terrifying and powerful Elba performance we might have hoped for. Regardless of expectations, Elba gives us an excellent antagonist with a bizarre detachment and resignation to his own delusional rhetoric. You never really get a sense he cares about what he’s fighting for, just that he cares about fighting and fights to make others care about him. There’s a loneliness and insecurity that creeps below his faux-bravado, which comes to a magnificent head in the film’s thematic conclusion.
Some narrative shortcomings hold it back from true brilliance, but Beasts of No Nation remains a powerful and gorgeously constructed film. Fukunaga’s keen eye and the film’s intelligent focus on Agu’s journey ensures a visceral and informed reaction to an incredibly tragic and complicated phenomenon the world seems powerless to stop.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10