TIFF ’15: ‘Beasts of No Nation’ an ambitious and devastating profile of war

download (1)Beasts of No Nation
Written by Cary Fukunaga
Directed by Cary Fukunaga
2015, USA

Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation showcases a bombardment of graphic imagery that is excruciating, chilling and hard to digest. Still, for all the cringe-inducing brutality, the engrossing material engages on a fundamental level, with a level of empathy that is not present in most war epics. The mental, physical and sexual exploitation of children that comes with absolute warfare is on full display. Here, kids are both victims and perpetrators. Choice is seen as something that’s only an option for the privileged in peacetime. Little Agu’s (Abraham Attah) world is flipped upside down as his loving family is supplanted by a roving gang of child soldiers led by the intimidating Commandant (Idris Elba), who marches across an unnamed African country for power and revenge. Although Elba receives top billing, it is Attah who owns the entirety of the story and commands respect with his profoundly executed transition from sheltered innocent to shell-shocked murderer. From the hyper-aware perspective of a child, we see a senseless war fought on the ground with bare hands. Steeped in blood and confusion, Beasts of No Nation offers no easy answers for the miserable existence that some must endure.

Fukunaga (True Detective Season 1, Jane Eyre) adapts Uzodinma Iweala’s novel with gritty tact as Agu is forced to witness and commit atrocities. He is set adrift into a mind numbing set of aimless acts that are meant to disturb the audience out of a complacent cynicism about the cause and effects of human behavior when thrown into chaos. Here, actions do not have reason, but spring out of terrible circumstance. There are glimmers of morality, but they largely don’t have a place in the lives of men and boys who will do anything to gain something in a world bereft of legitimate opportunity. There are only a few scenes that feel as though they’re holding back from something bleaker. The rest come across as though they could slide into the darkest corners of human experience. That threat is more often than not delivered on with savage efficiency. Any visual restraint that strays away from explicitness is often accompanied with a welcome sense of relief, but holds a promise that more fevered violence is on its way. Much as the young soldiers drift across the land, the camera meanders. It often does not rush to make sense of what we’re encountering. We’ll get there in time, and find that being in the thick of the carnage is full of unrelenting agony for all involved. Agu deals with his predicament for some time by thinking about his mother, but as the horrors of what he’s done wear him down, his coping mechanism fails to keep him naive and young enough to hope for a better life. Although the constant hammering of disquieting scenarios is seemingly endless, Attah’s energy carries the film forward with gusto. With his booming voice and masculine menace, the imposing presence of Elba sets a tone for how the ingrained violence that boxes these children into this life allows no way to safely exit the cyclical nature of the crimes perpetrated. The vulnerable bodies and minds of the children are molded into those of cutthroat survivalists. Most of who they once were is washed away by death and by way of inducting them into being a direct part of the problem.

Beasts of No Nation
should be seen in one sitting. Tempting as it may be to pause or walk away from the suffering, it’s a truly immersive experience that deserves a commitment to the screen. Anything but conventionally fulfilling with a deliberately incremental pace that builds to bursts of anxiety inducing action- it’s a film that challenges one to re-engage with compassion for those who are buried alive in the slew of conflicts that rage throughout the world.

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