“Without obedience you have nothing.”
Many of us are stationary, whether it be in our thoughts, our surroundings, our primitive nature. It takes courage to really change those. Luckily for that problem we have a cinematic cure. A building quartered off into rooms, full of chairs filled by people, with a story transpiring before our eyes. A good movie in a good theater is, to me, about as close as we’ll ever come to actual magic. To having a tangible and a corporeal quality. Beasts of No Nation is a film with the power to fully translate those feelings and somehow does so in numerous ways. This should absolutely be seen on the big screen with the bright lights. But what’s most important is that you see it. Use your Netflix account, borrow a friend’s password, sign up for a free trial. Just see the movie. Cinema is the most transporting art-form, and this stunning film takes us to the edges of war, humanity, and the fragility of childhood. Beasts of No Nation is a masterpiece.
“I am a good boy. From a good family,” says Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy living with his family in a small village, located in an unnamed African country. The location doesn’t really matter because as we’ve witnessed over time, this journey is one that is shared worldwide yet unique to its own social boundaries and determinations. As unrest encroaches the people disperse, including Agu’s mother and sister. His father was once a teacher, and the civil war took his career long before it took the land. Government soldiers come, the rest of his family is slaughtered, and Agu slips into the brush. He is a boy with no home. We know from the title that his adolescence will be a tainted one, and that he will forcibly become one of the countless aforementioned beasts with no nation.
In a college lecture with a professor whose name escapes me yet his personality and temperament remain crystal clear, teaching us students lessons in morality, the man did something memorable in a class that proved to be all too unremarkable. Without saying a word he gripped Play-Doh (his word association for Plato) and threw a little leaguer fastball at the adjacent concrete wall. “The Play-Doh is innocence. The wall is war.” Who would’ve guessed the bizarre behavior would apply to a film I would come to watch some 6 years later? Life is funny that way. Here, Agu is the clay, and his willing participation and entrenchment in the life of a child soldier is the wall. It flattens out the childhood left in him to an irrevocably changed and unilateral person. Attah does some of the best work by a novice child actor you will ever see. His narration, often addressing God, is filled with the sadness of a Vietnam Vet. And when he enters the point of no return, we literally see the transformation in his eyes. Look for it closely. What we see is the discovery of a soon to be star.
Beasts of No Nation is a performance vehicle with a surreal atmosphere gently blended with stark realities. Dan Romer’s synthetic score, one of the year’s best and as pop inspired as his work on Digging for Fire, helps establish the tone. From there comes the authenticity and the enormous cast does outstanding work to not only make it look real, but to feel real in their terrifying roles as men with no sense of fear. You will never question the accuracy of the depiction of this story. As far as what we see on-screen goes, the culmination of the lifelike events comes from the cultivation of the talent in Idris Elba. He’ll be up there with Benicio del Toro for Best Supporting Actor come Oscar time, and deservedly so in his role as Commandant. The anti-government/establishment warmonger twists logic and fuels his own fire through those seeking vengeance. Warring is done by their hands while his hold a drag. Elba is a bellowing, formidable presence on-screen, and he uses that to his advantage here. The actor is more than that though, and watching his heart descend into darkness and his mind collapse under paranoia is breathtaking. This is Grade-A, certified, premium acting.
I’d venture to guess that few who see the name Cary Fukunaga don’t immediately think of True Detective. It’s admittedly hard not to jump into that ravine of greatness. However, Beasts of No Nation bears the closest similarity to his early film Sin Nombre, another story with a different spin on the loss of innocence. No wonder he almost helmed the new take of the horror classic It. Fukunaga is a director and a filmmaker with an apparent obsession, or at least a keen interest, in the unpredictable seismic shifts of personhood. And boy does it suit him well. As the director, cinematographer, and the writer on this project (it took him 7 years to pen), Mr. Fukunaga has painstakingly detailed a fictionalized depiction of the lives and events and horrors which we know to be happening right now. This uncompromising and unyielding moviegoing experience can be excruciating to watch, but it is all too easy to absorb. We view Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, The Bridge on the River Kwai and are immediately taken back in time. Beasts of No Nation does the same. It’s a juxtaposition of tragic sadness and beautifully life-affirming platitudes, and it is most certainly one of the best 2015 has to offer.
“Nothing is ever for sure and everything is always changing.”
Rating: 5 out of 5