Captivating from the opening moments of childhood in Africa through the suffering and hope for survival of war, Beasts of No Nation is a rare feat of film-making excellence in just about every area. Setting up the innocence before shattering it, the opening moments are charming and endearing as children attempt the sale of an old hollowed out television set with the nickname Imagination TV – the kids perform various genres behind the frame, switching from melodrama to music dance to even 3D as one child protrudes through the empty frame. Minutes into the story, our young protagonist Agu (Abraham Attah) has to witness the horror of his mother, father, and older brother being murdered by malicious armed forces. Life-changing doesn’t cover it as free-spirited youth becomes the embroilment of war.
Agu’s journey lingers further into the realm of violence as rebel militia leader, known only as Commandant (Idris Elba), takes him under his wing under the proviso that he must kill or be killed. Soon enough Agu makes his first kill, handed a cleaver to horrifically dispatch of a captive man begging for his life. One of many brutally shocking moments in the film. Later Agu has little hesitation in firing a bullet through the head of a woman thus ending the torment of her rape. There are heavy scenes of front-line war throughout, overpowering emotionally rather than gratuitously relentless. While not easy to watch it is impossible to turn your eyes away. Each harrowing event or life taken drags these children further from their innocence – Agu’s voice-over at one point ponders tragically on how when the war is ended that he won’t be able to do child things.
Fresh off the True Detective acclaim, the clearly talented Cary Joji Fukunaga not only adapts the 2005 novel by Uzodinma Iweala, but also efficiently acts as director and cinematographer. Fukunaga’s grasp of the material and brilliance of execution has to go down as one of the clear remarkable achievements of this year. His nifty, composed handheld camerawork and long takes glide and drift meticulously amidst smoke and color – including an non-distracting, unforgettable sequence of intoxication and flourish with a distinct palette alteration. It’s a bravado visual effort, Fukunaga and his technical team have crafted a motion picture that lavishes multiple senses. Dan Romer’s score has poignancy and power, one of the most memorable in years. The film’s components sweep across the screen, perhaps reminding us of the likes of Apocalypse Now or The Thin Red Line, while somehow delivering a level of promise they may not have even declared.
Each moment and transition is different from the next, but none the more powerful and engulfing. Brutality and beauty seem to merge, acts of unquestionable violence and morality carry such emotive impact, as do some particularly engrossing sequence of dance and community bonding. Elba’s Commandant appears to be both a father figure and ruthless leader, a commanding, fearless turn and maybe the charismatic actor”s finest performance. Young Attah is just as mesmerizing, saying as much with his polluted face and eyes as he does with words – the film ends with his self-aware remorse and hope, and his eyes venture so close to the direct camera he could almost be speaking to us.
Branded by the Netflix distribution, Beasts of No Nation‘s scale and visual splendor means this was no where near the ideal release for a platform that allows us to huddle in a corner watching on a small screen with crummy laptop sound outage. I saw it as loud and as big as my home surroundings allow, but should you be fortunate to find the theatrical release close by then I implore you to go to an even bigger screen. I wonder how such a distribution can detract from the film’s own journey through awards season. It remains to be seen whether this is the best film of the year by the Academy’s criteria, but certainly one of them, and has all the right ingredients to make a realistic serge for a rare Best Picture winner worthy of the accolade.