Tuesday, December 15, 2015

BEASTS OF NO NATION Is a Powerful Look at War as Hell


- From his work on the first season of True Detective, it was clear to me that director Cary Fukunaga was going to be a person to watch. This guy had the goods, and he elevated that first season of TD via some truly cinematic, truly jaw-dropping direction and mood-setting cinematography. Now, Fukunaga is back with BEASTS OF NO NATION - and it's another clear indicator that Fukunaga is the real deal. Fukunaga directs, but he also wrote the script - an adaptation of the novel by Uzodinma Iweala. As a result, this feels like a big, sprawling movie that is still every bit an auteurist creation. The film tells the story of a young African boy, Agu, who is caught up in a war that completely ravages his village and wipes out everything he knows. Agu is recruited by a charismatic but brutal general known as the Commandant to serve in his fighting unit - a ragtag bunch largely comprised of boys and very young men, who are nonetheless trained by their cult-like leader to become vicious killers. Watching Agu's journey from innocent boy to scarred warrior is harrowing and intense - this is a sometimes hard-to-watch but ultimately powerful and must-see story, a film about war and violence and loss of innocence that is among the year's most affecting pieces of cinema.

The film takes place in an unnamed African country, in an unspecified year. At first, there is a sense of disorientation - are we watching a representation of true events, or a work of fiction? The latter is true - but the fictional nature of the story only makes it that much more powerful as a symbolic story that, while fiction, is packed with harsh truth about world around us. Fukunaga paints a vivid picture of this world. Agu's life before all-consuming war is filled with scarcity and want, but in its own way it is serene. There is joy, and family, and a childhood that feels like a childhood should. But when tragedy and fate lead him into the waiting arms of Elba's Commandant, Agu is quickly radicalized to become a killer and a combatant. We don't know all the details of the war that Agu is drawn into, but what is clear is that there are no "good guys" here. The occupants that Commandant fights against are UN-sponsored, but they savagely execute innocents and forcefully conquer villages like Agu's. From blood comes more blood. The Commandant's child army kills without remorse - soldier and innocent alike. They rape, they plunder. And yet, as singular a leader as Commandant is, he is still revealed to be a pawn in a much bigger game - serving political masters and financial backers who have no qualms about ridding themselves of him and his soldiers when they no longer serve a purpose. Part of what makes BEASTS OF NO NATION so affecting is the slow arc of realization, as the Commandant's once-loyalist soldiers begin to realize the extent to which they are all just pawns in pointless conflict that benefits only the few.

Elba's performance here is a stunner, and I didn't realize he had it in him to give us this sort of all-in, go-for-broke sort of work. The Commandant is such a great character - a leader who thrives on the loyalty of his subjects, yet whose brutality, savagery, and vice can be self-sabotaging. He is a lion on the verge of extinction - a wild man who amassed power on via charisma and the instillation of fear, but who is perhaps too wild for an age in which murder and bloodshed are increasingly part of a bigger military-industrial complex. Elba's Commandant is fearsome yet oddly vulnerable - a living embodiment of war and chaos. And yet, the way he chews up and spits out the young boys who follow him is truly reprehensible. Agu - school-educated and level-headed - becomes his prized apprentice. But what Commandant sees as affection is in fact ruination. Because of Commandant, Agu - no older than 10, 11 years old - becomes a monster in his own right.

Agu is played by Abraham Attah, and the young actor gives a truly remarkable performance. From looking at this eyes alone, you see Agu go from cherubic child to hardened warrior in a manner that is legitimately disturbing. We see the movie and its war-torn world through Agu's eyes, and so the fact that Attah makes this character so compelling as a narrator and protagonist - even as he devolves before us into something unrecognizable - is a huge credit to the actor.

Fukunaga is known for his dazzling shooting style, and he fills BEASTS OF NO NATION with a number of his trademark single-take shots, bobbing and weaving through complexly-staged scenes of violence and mayhem. Still, Fukunaga never lets the wow-factor of his cinematography overpower the grim and disturbing nature of what we're seeing. The effect is to put is right in the midst of these chaotic and head-spinning scenes, forcing us to absorb the horror of what's happening as it zips by us at lightning speed. As a result, we can see the sort of overwhelming trauma that these young soldiers are going through, and understand just how warped their minds are becoming from being thrust into these hell-on-earth warzones.

At times, the film does feel a little overlong and ponderous. But mostly, it works as an immersive and hard-to-forget look at how war can ruin not just an individual, but a generation. Despite being wholly fictional, there were so many echoes of the reality we see everyday in the news that you can't simpy dismiss the film as fantasy. It's a sad, stark reminder of the world that we live in at its worst.

Fukunaga has given us a jaw-dropper of a film here, and Elba pulls off a career-best turn that won't soon be forgotten. This film was Netflix's first foray into major original film distribution - and man, what a start. Give it a look if you can, as it's a can't-miss, incredibly powerful story.

My Grade: A-

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