Cary Joji Fukunaga (2015)
Since his excellent Jane Eyre, Cary Fukunaga has made the widely acclaimed True Detective for HBO but Beasts of No Nation is his first cinema film in four years. I found it an exasperating movie – too real for much of the time, eventually not real enough. Fukunaga’s screenplay, adapted from a 2005 novel of the same name by the Nigerian writer Uzodinma Iweala, tells a coming-of-age story of a remarkably savage kind. A civil war being fought in an unnamed West African country destabilises the life of the principal character, Agu, a pre-adolescent boy. His mother, sister and younger brother leave the village where the family lives, in the hope of finding the capital city a place of greater safety. Agu stays behind with his father, grandfather and elder brother, all three of whom are then shot dead by the national army. Agu flees and hides in the bush, where he’s discovered and threatened by a band of rebels – members of what’s known as the Native Defence Force. Agu is coerced into joining this group as a boy soldier. He is taught to kill, and kill again.
Most members of the rebel force are boys or youths but its leader, referred to simply as the Commandant, is an older man, played by Idris Elba (who was forty-one when the film shoot began). Until Elba appears, Beasts of No Nation has the quality of dramatised documentary, not least because of the boy who plays Agu, Abraham Attah. (His date of birth is shown as ‘2000/2001’ on Wikipedia; there’s no year given on IMDB.) Attah brings to the film familiar pluses and minuses of the newcomer to screen acting. His face, previously unknown to us, is freshly expressive; but it’s hard to make out what he’s saying. Both the face and the furry voice enhance Agu’s realness but Attah’s inaudibility is frustrating too. As the brutal warlord, Idris Elba gives dramatic shape to the action and a committed, compelling performance but he’s also physically outstanding, in a more problematic way. Although Elba has West African parents, his skin colour is different from that of the other rebels and his heavily muscled physique contrasts too emphatically, even allowing for his character’s greater age, with the wiriness of the Commandant’s soldiers.
Cary Fukunaga begins his film with a telling image. Agu and another boy in his village are trying to get some money by selling a television frame that has no screen. In showing the boys looking through the empty frame, Fukunaga seems to suggest to viewers of Beasts of No Nation that we may be used to seeing and experiencing African kids only through a television screen but will now be made to look at them differently, and more directly. He certainly forces us to do that in the extended sequences of fighting and bloodshed that follow, and which account for a large part of the film’s 137 minutes. Complaining that the violence is excessive runs the risk, of course, of accusations that you want to look away from the political reality that underlies Agu’s story. But would Fukunaga dilute his telling of that story if he engaged the audience’s attention over rather less screen time and through rather fewer violent set pieces? According to Wikipedia, he had been working on this project for several years by the time principal photography began in Ghana in mid-2014. You respect Fukunaga’s effort but there were times when I wondered if he was too concerned with putting on the screen proof of his mastery of the complex logistics of the production.
There are fine things in the film – for example, Fukunaga’s descriptions of the indoctrination of the boy soldiers, and of the startling proximity of childhood toys and games to weapons and warfare. Dan Romer’s score doesn’t register strongly but Beasts of No Nation is often visually impressive. Fukunaga, who did his own cinematography, avoids facile contrasts between the beauty of the landscape and the horror of human behaviour within it. There are startling images of mingled blood and rain. Yet because the violence involving the opposing forces in the civil war becomes almost the default setting of the narrative, its effect is numbing. The confusion and ensuing violence of an episode in which the Commandant and some of his men/boys, including Agu, visit a brothel are more dynamic and shocking, because of the different context in which they occur. There’s a similar impact, for the same reason, in an earlier sequence in a house that the rebel soldiers enter: Agu sees a woman there whom he initially imagines is the mother from whom he’s been separated.
The uncompromising mood of Beasts of No Nation shifts sharply in its closing stages. The Commandant’s forces, out of food and ammunition and suffering from various diseases and injuries, abandon their leader and surrender to a UN patrol. The boys are placed in a UN sanctuary for child soldiers, where they receive medical care and counselling. In a climactic speech, Agu tells his counsellor that he’s done terrible things and knows he’ll be rightly considered ‘a beast’ but that he was once part of a good, loving family. This final monologue is emotionally effective – not least because we’ve never forgotten how Agu started the film. (The monologue is also mostly audible.) But does Cary Fukunaga mean us to think that the other participants in the civil war whom we’ve watched are also victims of circumstance? It’s to Idris Elba’s credit that, in his last scene, he shows the Commandant as a comprehensively defeated figure but is this man – a ruthless soldier and military careerist who also sexually abuses his boy soldiers – deserving of our sympathy too? Or is the Commandant a dramatically useful baddie who gets the comeuppance he deserves? The film ends with Agu joining other boys at the sanctuary to swim and play in the ocean. We’re relieved, of course, that Agu has survived and may have the prospect of a better life ahead. This closing sequence struck me less as a credible outcome for a child in Agu’s situation than as the concluding ray of hope required in a movie with the box-office ambitions of Beasts of No Nation.
15 October 2015