‘Beasts of No Nation’: How a boy becomes a warrior
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Last year Cary Fukunaga directed future Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey and two-time Academy Award nominee Woody Harrelson in one of the best and most original movies of the 21st century.
Except it wasn’t actually a film, due to the distribution method. It’s what they sometimes call a limited TV series.
“True Detective” was released as an eight-part HBO series and not an epic movie in one or two parts — but taken as separate episodes or a complete arc, Fukunaga’s haunting, confounding, dark and beautiful work was the equal of just about everything great we saw on the big screen last year.
Now comes “Beasts of No Nation.” One day that title will become a trivia question as the first theatrical release under the increasingly powerful Netflix banner (a streaming release of the movie coincides with a limited run in select theaters), but the real legacy of this film should be its merits as a visceral gut-punch about the never-ending insanity of war, and how a call to arms can transform a child from a relatively innocent boy to a ruthless killer.
Based on the acclaimed 2005 novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, “Beasts of No Nation” is set in an unnamed African country where internal violence is a part of the daily fabric. But there are still a few pockets of safety where children can be children, at least for a while longer.
When we meet young Agu (Abraham Attah), a boy of about 11 or 12, he and his friends are trying to extract some loose change from soldiers by hawking “Imagination Television,” i.e., a hollowed-out old TV with Agu’s friends on the other side of the TV, acting out soap operas and action flicks. It’s a neatly framed, funny sequence.
That’s about the last time “Beasts of No Nation” is played for amusement.
After Agu’s father and brother are killed by government troops, Agu becomes the protégé of a charismatic, ambitious, temperamental and brutal rebel leader known as “The Commandant.” The Commandant is played by Idris Elba, and what a fitting name for his character, as Elba commands the screen — TV or film — with as much force and presence as just about any actor in the world today.
The Commandant’s training techniques are effective — and horrific. He indoctrinates non-soldiers, many of them mere boys, with frightening efficiency, acting as equal part father figure, last best hope and intimidator. At one point Agu is handed a machete, and the Commandant points out the exact spot on a man’s skull that Agu should target before ending the man’s life.
Even though the man appears to be guilty of nothing.
Elba is such a magnetic actor and the Commandant such a fascinating and complex character, we keep waiting for the focus to shift to the Commandant’s arc — but this is Agu’s story from start to finish.
At the outset of the film, Agu tells us what he’s experiencing via the device of a dialogue with God. As blood flows and the world explodes and madness prevails, Agu tells us he’s no longer speaking with God because he’s sure God is not listening.
Fukunaga is a dazzling stylist, and at times the shifting palettes of the cinematography and the brilliant camera moves (he’s also the DP on this film) are so impressive as to be marginally distracting. This was the case with “True Detective” as well, but I’d much prefer watching the work of an immensely talented director who only occasionally goes overboard with the visual pyrotechnics as opposed to another prosaic, paint-by-numbers effort.
There’s a certain irony to this being a Netflix movie, because it is NOT the kind of film you should be watching on your iPad. If you have Netflix and you’re going to stream this film, hopefully you have the means to watch it on a larger monitor.
Young Abraham Attah was a vendor on the streets of Ghana when Fukunaga found him, tested him with other unknowns and eventually cast the boy. (Fukunaga also cast non-actors in his feature debut about Central American gangs, “Sin Nombre.”) It’s a remarkable performance by Attah, who holds our attention, even when he’s sharing the screen with the great Elba.
Netflix presents a film written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala. Running time: 136 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre and on Netflix.