BEAST OF NO NATION (Fukunaga, 2015)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 31, 2021
Review by Christopher S. Long
In the opening act of “Beasts of No Nation” (2015), young Agu (Abraham Attah) plays soccer, performs impromptu “imagination TV” acts with his friends, and pisses on his older brother as a bath-time prank. Embraced by his loving family, Agu has managed to lead a relatively happy childhood even though his country (an unnamed African nation, as per the title) is in a state of war between government and rebel forces.
Agu likely has little sense of how fragile the buffer zone in which he lives truly is, but all innocence is shattered when government soldiers round up the villagers, declare them rebels, and begin mass executions. Agu escapes into the bush where he is discovered by a rebel faction, a group consisting mostly of child soldiers led by the menacing Commandant (Idris Elba).
The Commandant is all ambition and no conscience, a sociopath capable of slaughtering villagers, raping children, and then piously leading his young charges in a prayer before their next righteous mission. Writer-director-cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga, adapting a novel by Uzodinma Iweala, turns his agile camera on a gallery of unspeakable horrors, never more effectively than when showing the carefully orchestrated indoctrination program used to brainwash vulnerable children like Agu. The Commandant initially dehumanizes Agu as “this thing” before later establishing himself as a domineering surrogate father, the boy's only protector. Agu (along with others) is subjected to ritual execution and burial alive to be “reborn” as a loyal rebel soldier, ready to follow all orders. Even to kill innocents on command.
Any movie on a topic so grim must stare into the abyss; to shy away from depicting violence for fear of alienating viewers would be irresponsible. But there are times when Fukunaga's unflinching gaze strays into questionable territory. What is the benefit of filming a meticulously choreographed sequence in which a boy shoots a woman in the head while she is being raped? That's a sincere question. Nobody has been appointed as the official moral gatekeeper in such matters, and Fukunaga's urgency in portraying the bleak plight of child soldiers is never in doubt. However, not everything that can be depicted audiovisually should be.
Elba received wide acclaim for his smoldering but never showy performance. A savvy exploiter, the Commandant is a plausible monster, a man who mistakes his ability to bully frightened children as heroic leadership, styling himself as a man of destiny entitled to fame and glory. He feels sincerely betrayed when he learns that his superiors see him as what he truly is, a disposable cog in a profitable war machine. The praise for Elba is fully justified, but Abraham Attah, a non-professional actor from Ghana making his debut, deserves every bit as much attention for his ability to navigate a perilous journey from playful child to trained killer while not fully losing his humanity.
Filmed primarily in Ghana, “Beasts of No Nation” showcases landscapes along with characters, from the red-brown soil along battle-scarred roads to the vast forest canopy stretching to the edges of the wide-screen frame. Fukunaga's cinematography is perhaps too beautiful at times, considering the ugliness of the events depicted, but his mobile camera immerses the audience fully in a harrowing environment.
The film ends on a note of tentative hope that may feel like the first “safe” choice made, allowing viewers a respite from the misery. After such a grueling experience, it's a welcome decision, even if it may seem a bit forced.
The film is presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. This “2k digital master, approved by director Cary Joji Fukunaga” looks great, with vibrant colors and sharp image detail. It's a recent film shot digitally, so this 1080p transfer likely looks very close to the original image.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is “remastered from the original digital audio master files” and sounds both sharp and dense, with dialogue, sound effects, and music all well-presented. No distortion or drop-off, etc. Optional English subtitles support the audio.
The film is accompanied by a new 2021 feature-length commentary track by Fukunaga and first assistant director Jon Mallard.
“Passion Project' (2021, 61 min.) is a new documentary produced by Criterion which features interviews with Fukunaga, novelist Uzodinma Iweala, producer Amy Kaufman, Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, and others. Fukunaga discusses his long-standing interest in the plight of child soldiers, and how he had been preparing a project on the subject for some time before he came across Iweala's novel. Iweala speaks about his book's genesis, including being mentored in college by Jamaica Kincaid. This feature also spends a good amount of time making it clear that the child actors were protected while filming this frightening story, a question that has to occur to anyone watching the movie.
Criterion has also included a discussion (21 min.) between Fukunaga and cultural commentator Franklin Leonard which touches on some of the same issues as the documentary does.
We also get an interview (20 min.) with costume designer Jenny Eagan and a Trailer (2 min.)
“Beasts of No Nation” received attention not just for its content, but for its release strategy. Netflix won a fierce bidding war for distribution rights, then debuted it on their platform along with a simultaneous theatrical release. It was a groundbreaking decision at the time as well as a controversial one, prompting major exhibition chains to boycott the film. It's not the crowd-pleaser you might have expected Netflix to favor for such a daring move. The gambit didn't pay off in box-office returns, but the film earned both critical plaudits and numerous awards, though, to much derision, the Academy snubbed it completely.