War films have the ability to be either an absolute chore to get through, or to be moving and emotional adventures into times of extreme suffering. War films, in my humble opinion, are best when they are unflinching in regards to their subject matter. What is the use of telling the audience a story about human atrocities and suffering and not telling the full story? The two greatest war films of all time – Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket – are tenets of war cinema because of how they approached the subject matter. Watching Beasts of No Nation, I was struck by how this film can be a companion to the others, and while it certainly is not a traditional masterpiece, it has too many merits to ignore it or not praise.
It is very difficult to review Beasts of No Nation because it feels like both a roaring success and a dismal failure, all at the same time. I don’t quite know exactly how I feel about this film as a whole. It was deeply flawed, but also soared where very few films dare to even tread. A divisive film is not necessarily a bad film, and the contrasting emotions a film like Beasts of No Nation stirs up will most certainly resonate with many people, and even those who become incredibly bitter about the amount of violence in this film will have to admit the sheer powerful nature of this film as a whole.
To start off with, I will give Beasts of No Nation some praise. In a time where war films have progressed from the staple of World War II, then Vietnam, then the Middle East, it was refreshing to see a major film set in a completely different setting, telling a completely different story. Africa has such a rich, diverse history and culture, but it also has a very complicated modern history, and the twentieth century has been plagued with post-colonial revolutions and political unrest under which too many people lost their lives. It was absolutely amazing to see Cary Joji Fukunaga take the leap towards telling a story otherwise ignored by major film studios for far too long, that of child soldiers in Africa. Any exploitation of a child in any industry is horrendous, but forcing a child who hasn’t even reached his teenage years to endure the horrors of guerrilla warfare, and killing people before eating breakfast, is something so terrifying that we very rarely want to even think about it. However, in Beasts of No Nation, we are forced to address this issue, and it haunts us right until the credits are long over.
I am not in anyway a sadist, but I am not sensitive about violence in films, especially when I know it isn’t real violence, but simply there to contribute to the story.
Beasts of No Nation had me on the verge of tears with its unflinching violence. I won’t spoil the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but there is a specific scene that is so brutal and incredibly violent, it speaks more than any words possibly could. The knowledge that the violence in this film wasn’t real was no comfort, and while it may seem like I am criticizing it for being too violent, it is actually monumental praise. It is easy to disgust someone with violence, but it is extraordinarily difficult to move someone with violence. As violent as Beasts of No Nation is, it is never disgusting or excessive, but frequently moving and emotionally resonant. However, this cannot be scene as the hallmark of violence in cinema – it is not the film every film that wants to show brutal violence should aspire to be. Beasts of No Nation uses its own path to achieve its goals, and by use of beautiful violence (this is a new term – it isn’t insinuating that the violence is at all pleasing or beautiful, but instead strikingly resonant and moving that it becomes almost poetic), it tells the story brilliantly.
If my description of this film and its use of violence has somewhat made you reluctant to ever see it, understand that the violence, while brutal, is not the driving force behind this film. The driving force behind Beasts of No Nation comes in the form of a young boy named Abraham Attah, who is nothing less than a spectacular revelation. As Agu, the boy who goes from innocent child to renegade soldier, he gives a performance that is, without a doubt, for the ages. This is exactly what this film needed – a strong, powerful lead that could handle the terrors of this story with grace and dignity, and both be a symbol of historical struggles happening right now, but also our guide into this world. Attah plays Agu with such precision, and even though he does terrible atrocities (under instruction and threat of death, though), we never feel even a slight bit of hatred towards him. His performance is powerful and one of the most moving I’ve seen in years.
Attah is only matched by one other actor, and that is Idris Elba, who plays the nameless, heartless commander who takes Agu in as his adopted son, but forces him to experience the horrors of warfare and class struggle. He forces Agu to kill innocent people, betray those who he considers friends and most of all, to never trust anyone. It is a performance we simultaneously are drawn to and repelled from, and while I was expecting more from Elba (who has proven to be a consistently excellent character actor), his performance was amazing and he and Attah prove to be a formidable pair with great chemistry, which is an odd idea to conceive for a film like Beasts of No Nation, but it is absolutely true.
Beasts of No Nation lacks direction. It wanted to be too many things. It wanted to be a harrowing war drama, a socially conscious statement and a coming-of-age story. It wanted to be both historical and progressive, and both a testament to youth and a cautionary tale to adulthood. Most of all, it wanted to be absolutely harrowing but still hopeful. Fukunaga clearly wanted to try and put as much content and message into this film as he could, and in a way, he sacrificed far too much of this film’s potential and while he didn’t completely damage the film by being too frantic, he did make it quite a bit less powerful. Perhaps it was intentional – it is already an overwhelmingly powerful film, so maybe a more direct vision would’ve taken it to the point of being too excessive and maybe even scarring in its message.
I think Beasts of No Nation is the most important film of the year. It touches upon an issue very rarely covered in the mainstream media. It tells a story of one boy who serves as a representative of thousands of real-life children forced into this kind of modern slavery, and one that is considerably absent from the collective consciousness of the world as a whole. I honestly think that a film that takes a risk like this deserves an immense amount of praise and acclaim for just having the courage to tell an important story, and to bring attention to these important issues. I commend Fukunaga for his vision and dedication to doing this film (and in addition to this, he wasn’t hired to direct this – he toiled for nearly a decade to get this film made) and I am inspired by the true bravery it took to tell this story, from everyone involved.
There are two reactions that you can expect when this film ends. Either you are weeping from the intensity and the moving nature of this film, or you sit there, almost shell-shocked in quiet reflection and contemplation. I doubt there is a single person that won’t be somehow moved by this film. It is powerful, emotional and frequently makes the audience uncomfortable and forces us to consider that outside our own lives, there exists a world full of sadness and injustice, where films like Beasts of No Nation are not fiction, but are a terrifying reality. I praise this film for its courage and its unrelenting look at this terrible situation many people find themselves in, and as flawed as Beasts of No Nation is, it is still pretty much a masterpiece, and I think it is essential viewing, because I believe that one day, we can bring a change to such injustices. A brilliant film.