Thursday, October 15, 2015
There is a sense that Netflix is venturing into new territory with this week's release of Cary Joji Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation. Fukunaga, whose greatest claim to fame so far is the much lauded first season of HBO's True Detective, trains his focus on the plight of African child soldiers, measuredly delivering his message by placing us in the shoes of Agu (Abraham Attah) as he comes of age in the war-torn jungle of some anonymous country. There he falls under the spell of the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba), a nameless fighter who resembles pretty much every megalomaniac ever. And therein lies the problem with the film.
If Beasts of No Nation feels a little predictable it is because it follows the same basic outline as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, or at least the latter half of Apocalypse Now, where the protagonist is simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the unhinged but mesmerizing Kurtz. The Commandant is similarly appealing, offering nuggets of half-baked philosophy to the impressionable Agu, who has just recently lost his father and older brother. The Commandant preys on Agu's search for a new male role model to first gain the boy's trust, then his loyalty, before directing him against his enemies the way one would point a gun. And like the source material it derives its plot from, Beasts of No Nation shows us how the Commandant's paranoia and inability to compromise ultimately prove to be his undoing.
Appropriately, Elba is both charming and ghoulish as the "freedom fighter," playing up his physicality to give us a lion of a man to whom leading men of any age comes very easily. However, Elba is best when the Commandant is placed in situations where his strengths are ineffectual, his violent streak unnecessary. When he is called in by the Supreme Commander, he brings a small entourage of his pubescent warriors—who follow him like some twisted pied piper—to the meeting. Forced to wait all day and into the night as nebbishy money men stream in uninterrupted for an audience with the leader, the Commandant begins to look like a lethal, caged animal in sharp contrast: coiled in the corner playing dead, but ready and itching to strike.
His leader's flaws all begins to dawn on Agu very gradually. But not before he devolves into an executioner himself. Beasts of No Nation's most devastating moments are the ones where Attah so convincingly imparts Agu's state of mind as he transforms from an at-risk innocent into a trigger-happy warrior. At one point, his death squad runs across a woman and her daughter hiding in a closet. She so resembles the mother and sister Agu was separated from that he momentarily believes it's really them. The fear in the woman's eyes, so unfamiliar to Agu, breaks him from his reverie. But watching one of his squad rape her then causes a kind of cognitive dissonance, pushing Agu to erase the image altogether in the most savage of ways. Despite Agu's fatal instincts, Attah never lets you forget that this boy was a gentle soul before he was conscripted into the Commandant's cruel service, brainwashed into fighting for a "cause" that increasingly starts to look mercenary.
Adding to the sense of deja vu inherent in Beasts of No Nation is its familiar imagery and score. Fukunaga was strongly influenced by another movie about young men trying to keep their grip on their humanity in a faraway jungle, Malick's The Thin Red Line. Scenes of the weary children frolicking in the ocean while the war continues not so far away are quite reminiscent of Malick's film, especially with Dan Romer's synthesized score playing over the scenes. It's not a bad movie to emulate, but it contributes to the feeling that the viewer has traveled down this path before. What ultimately makes Beasts of No Nation worthwhile are the two performances at its center. Elba is a formidable enough presence. Attah not only holds his own onscreen with Elba, the young actor occasionally eclipses him. That alone pushes Beasts of No Nation past its mundane template.