Written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
Although the achievements of director Cary Joji Fukunaga in the first season of True Detective have never been widely disputed, the disastrous second season, produced without Fukunaga at the helm, made his contribution all the more apparent. The astonishing six-minute tracking shot midway through season one was an obvious high point, but Fukunaga embedded visual information throughout the season which brought the setting and characters to life. Beyond the convoluted plot, season two missed these sorts of details, leaving a bland detective show without enough aesthetic idiosyncrasies to make it compelling.
Fukunaga brings the eye which served him so well on True Detective to Beasts of No Nation, the first feature film distributed by Netflix. With a screenplay and cinematography also by Fukunaga, the film adapts the 2005 novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala.
Like Iweala’s novel, Beasts of No Nation tells the story of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy struggling to survive in an unnamed West African country. When news comes of imminent violence in the boy’s home village, his father (Kobina Amissah-Sam) sends Agu’s mother (Ama K. Abebrese) out of harm’s way. Shortly after her escape, soldiers attack, and Agu is the only one from the village to survive.
He doesn’t last for long before coming across the Commandant (Idris Elba), a vicious but charismatic warlord who leads an army full of child soldiers such as Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), a silent but aggressive boy who can’t fully chase the look of innocence from his eyes. The Commandant trains boys like Strika to do his bidding, creating a violent troupe of young killers. Left without much choice, Agu joins the Commandant, simultaneously becoming a victim and a perpetrator: In spite of Agu’s violence, he’s undoubtedly a casualty of war.
At this point, Beasts of No Nation becomes a war-ravaged road movie of sorts, with the Commandant leading Agu around the countryside and engaging all of the soldiers in a variety of deadly conflicts. That description may sound glib, but it feels appropriate for capturing the alienating nature of Fukunaga’s technique: In a pivotal scene, blood stains the camera, spotlighting the film’s cinematic nature. While Fukunaga appears to be aiming for a visceral effect here, it has the opposite impact, alienating the viewer by emphasizing the camera’s presence. The artificiality of the film becomes apparent, thereby cheapening the not insignificant inroads Fukunaga makes towards an immersive experience.
He also undermines his aims through the anonymity of the setting. While it’s a trait he borrows from Iweala’s novel, it feels in the film like an unfair generalization of the entire continent of Africa. This is what happens in Africa, Fukunaga seems to be saying, not taking into consideration that different countries yield a variety of experiences and stories. By contrast, one can hardly imagine a Holocaust drama which doesn’t specify the concentration camps it depicts, or a Civil War film letting its viewers guess whether it takes place in Gettysburg or Fort Sumter. While the ambiguous identity given to the setting could suggest a universality to the story, it also suggests a lack of authenticity which destabilizes the film’s attempts at searing realism.
Not that the attempts should be wholly discounted. Elba gives a fantastic performance, channeling the brutal magnetism he once honed as Stringer Bell on The Wire. The Commandant is a complex figure, in turns paternal and fascistic, and Elba conveys the character’s subtleties without softening the blow of his evil. He’s matched by Attah, whose clear-eyed innocence at the beginning of the film becomes heart-wrenching by the end. Agu experiences horrible things, not least of which are crimes he himself commits, and Attah expresses a fundamental humanism while also showing the profound impact of war. Fukunaga captures the performances most notably through handheld close-ups, the shakiness of the camera echoing the boys’ fraying nerves.
Stylistic moves such as these, worthy of some of Fukunaga’s finest moments on True Detective, give Beasts of No Nation an undeniable power, even if the film ultimately betrays its intentions. In attempting to universalize and bring the effects of war up close, Fukunaga distances the viewer and keeps his film from realizing its potential magnitude. Beasts of No Nation is hardly an alienating film, but neither is it a fully engaging one.