Beasts of No Nation

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This post contains major spoilers about the film “Beasts of No Nation”

The other night, I watched Corey Fukunaga’s highly anticipated new film, Beasts of No Nation. The movie is based on a novel by the same name, written by Uzodinma Iweala, and is the chronicle of a child soldier in an unnamed West African nation. (Many assume it to be Nigeria). I thought the movie was pretty good. Abraham Attah, the main character, does a fantastic job. Idris Elba is good as the Commandant of the rebel forces, in a classic crazy/manipulative/engaging kind of way, but I’m really not sure it will distinguish itself from Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. There was a power and terror to that portrayal, a legitimate sense of crazy. (See also: Jack Nicholson in The Departed). Elba is commanding for sure, and he doesn’t brick the accent, but there seems to be a something missing, some key monologue or moment of tenderness, some genuine flash of insanity or terror. That would probably be enough put it over the top into Oscar-contention range, but I really don’t see it going there. At least not at the first viewing.

I absolutely cannot fault the cinematography, though. In addition to writing and directing the film, Fukunaga also served as cinematographer. The skills that gained him so much acclaim for True Detective‘s first season are in full effect—the jungle shots are impossibly lush and the war-torn villages glow with long light, smeared with red dirt. The smoky sequence as the rebels take a bridge during battle is haunting and hypnotic, while a long tracking scene that invades a house along with the drugged up rebels and swirls around the varied acts of escalating violence within displays both technical bravado and an close look at the continuously unfolding horrors of war. On that note, as well, the movie does not hesitate: the scene in while the protagonist is forced to kill for the first time, dispatching an unarmed, begging man, is about as visceral and unflinching as anything I’ve watching in a long time. In a movie that begins with acts of extreme violence and cruelty that are unsurprising to the modern viewer, desensitized to bloodshed, I was at once aghast and impressed by Fukunaga’s ability to capture something that hurt and horrified me.

One of the most interesting parts of the whole film experience was its impact. The idea of child soldiers is a horrific one, no one can disagree with that, but how to translate those horrors into a film without having the audience give up? I watch a lot of films. I can’t count how many people I’ve seen gunned down in them—it’s the plight of the modern viewer, inured to violence. Even early in the movie, when the main character’s father and brother are falsely accused of being rebels and summarily executed, gunned down by government soldiers, the emotional disruption was brief—perhaps because of the film’s concept and the promise of worse to come. Drug use was rampant among the soldiers, but lacked impact—we never see the harrow plight of withdrawal, only a vaguely drugged-up implication in the young warriors. As one scene of battle slips into a pinked-out, heavily saturated dreamscape, one can’t tell if it’s the substances, the unreality of a new worldview tinged by violence, or something else entirely. It’s a misstep, but not a major one. Even the sexual violence perpetrated by the commander on the boys is swallowed up by the miasma of horror that permeates the movie: something that should be gut-wrenching is merely another uncomfortable step on the journey of young Agu’s corruption. That’s the greatest risk of laying bare so many horrors at once: fatigue.

Maybe I need to watch it again. Maybe I hyped it too much in my mind. There was a lot there, most of it very bad, but very well done. I’ll update with better impressions soon.

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