A boy is very dangerous.
Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation will debut simultaneously on Netflix worldwide and in Landmark theaters across the country this October. As most predicted, it has been making waves this month on the festival circuit and is on a path to becoming one of 2015’s top Oscar contenders. Riveting, unwavering and spine-chilling, Beasts of No Nation is a coming-of-age odyssey.
Beasts of No Nation is the story of an African boy ripped from his family and forced to grow up too quickly, as he fights in a bloody civil war. Some will automatically compare Beasts of No Nation to the much lighter in tone, City of God (2002). That comparison is a disservice to Beasts of No Nation, a movie that accurately captures the horrors of life as a child soldier. Fukunaga tells the real story of child soldiers who lose their families, communities, innocence, and futures.
Agu (played by Abraham Attah in a breakout turn) is a happy child. He lives in a good home with loving parents and siblings. Having known no other sort of life, Agu takes his life, its freedoms, passions, and pleasures, for granted. Happy-go-lucky and mischievous, Agu tries to sell villagers and the soldiers imagination televisions (which is exactly as it sounds). Before the civil war, Agu is a creative, clever, spirited, and good-hearted boy. As the war comes to his village, Agu’s childhood abruptly ends. He gets separated from his mother, watches his father die, and barely escapes with his life. In a grueling scene slightly reminiscent to Shosana’s escape in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, Agu escapes the armed soldiers and takes to the jungle.
Eventually, Agu falls into the hands of a charismatic commander of a battalion of mercenaries. Played by Idris Elba, the Commandant knows exactly how to manipulate the children he leads. When he sees a boy, he sees a dangerous warrior. One with capable hands that can pull triggers. When the Commandant sees Agu, he sees not only a potentially dangerous warrior, but one that can be manipulated into his protégé. Idris Elba gives a masterful performance as a scheming, ruthless mercenary with a knack for turning boys into merciless killers. His performance should make him part of the conversation during award season. Agu becomes the soldier his mentor hopes he will. At a pivotal point in the film, Agu follows his commander’s order to kill a prisoner whose only crimes is belonging to the wrong group. As the prisoner begs for his life, Agu and a fellow childhood accomplice hack him to death.
One of the film’s ultimate strengths is Cary Fukunaga’s very own cinematography. Fukunaga acts his own director of photography and makes effective use of handheld camerawork, long takes, and slow-motion sequences. Particularly noteworthy is a tracking shot that captures Agu’s confusion as he encounters a woman he incorrectly believes to be his mother and as he takes part in the ruthless beating of a younger girl. In a short space, Fukunaga demonstrates both what Agu has lost and what he has become.
Fukunaga also makes shrewd use color, especially his repetition of red and white. Red represents the blood, the war, the flames at night, the vitality, the desire, and the danger surrounding the child soldiers at all times. White represents life, the sacred, the innocent, and the pure. By design, red and white appear on walls, in costumes, and throughout backgrounds in the film.
Beasts of No Nation is an engrossing and unshakeable directional achievement. Cary Fukunaga has mastered every specific detail of the production, sparring none. As much as I adore the film, I am at the same time ambivalent about watching it again because of the heavy emotional toll it took on me. If possible, see Beasts of No Nation in the theatre. It is highly cinematic, the images are crisp and beautiful, the scope is large and inclusive, and the sound design is loud and booming. This is peak, essential cinema from the hands of one of this decade’s exciting new talents. If you are forced to watch it on your computer via Netflix, please do yourself a favor and see it on the largest screen possible and with the speakers cranked all the way up