LFF Film Review: Beasts of No Nation (★★★½)

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LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: Originally known for his first two films Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre, Cary Fukunaga was put on the map for most by his audacious work on the first season of HBO’s True Detective last year, unconventionally directing every episode. He got all-time worthy performances from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey and boasted a palpable bleak mood from his photography, earning an Emmy for the episode “Who Goes There” with that captivating long take. He could do whatever he wanted after that, and so, tip toeing past comfortable studio gigs that may or may not have landed on his desk, he ventured out to the African jungles with Idris Elba for the most stressful shoot since Apocalypse Now. Catching malaria, filling in for an injured camera operator, and constantly rewriting the script due to the actors dropping out, the haphazard conditions shows on the film for better and for worse.

Coppola’s film is an apt point of comparison for the effect of Beasts of No Nation, as well as Platoon and The Thin Red Line. Battered by explosions and gunfire, you come out of the film wearing the same thousand yard stare as its characters. At that point, it’s easy to forget the delights of the first ten minutes as Abraham Attah’s Agu playfully hustles his living, selling shells of television sets with his friends. It’s not a perfect life, but the energy is reminiscent of the less dangerous sections of City of God. It’s only from that light that the darkness hits hardess and invests you in Agu’s plight and losses. However, this is as rocky as the rollercoaster gets. The next 2 hours is an absorbing barrage of misery and brutal dilemmas. The narrative thread is very loose, and perhaps some is lost in translation with the character’s thick accents, but this is part of its point, especially in utilising child soldiers who won’t know the ins and outs of what’s going on anyway.

This aimlessness of the mission and the way that the war is so much bigger than the soldiers and battalions demonstrates that there is no way into peace from war. The kids are fighting for a future that they won’t be able to find solace in, neither from eventual living and economical conditions, nor inner peace from the atrocities they’ve committed. These bleak ideas hit hard. And like Malick’s The Thin Red Line, a relationship with God in war is challenged. It’s questioned whether it’s possible or fair to have spiritual happiness after such sins. There is very poor foresight in war, and after only briefly touching a jarring scene where they visit the higher ups, it benefits no-one on the battleground. The film never preaches these messages, instead relying on the fact that we know how heartbreakingly true it is despite how far removed most of us will be.

Abraham Attah absolutely disappears into his role. He’s not showy, but just completely immersed in the film whether he’s soaking in events or lashing out against them. He’s easily the biggest discovery here. However, I expected great things from Elba after the hype and while he is good, it wasn’t the tour de force performance I anticipated. That’s just not how the character ended up being written. He has memorable moments but he teeters undefinably on the line between a manipulative villain and a manipulative mentor. He’s no doubt an opportunist, but the film doesn’t explore his character to the full extent, and the most dramatic moments are quite familiar as they’re staples in other war films. Beasts stands out by having such a young boy other end of those dilemmas. Elba is perhaps too polished to go with the inherent rawness of the rest of the cast.

Fukunaga’s cinematography is quite good, not boasting the same tricks as True Detective, but also clearly battling against the elements. It certainly has atmosphere. The style favours ambient music over montages of the war scenes and while that makes it flow together it also means that its surprises fall by the periphery. I can imagine that this will play well on Netflix, granted you give it full attention on a big HD television. The cinema projection does suffer from added graininess but that is rarely a problem via the internet and should compliment Fukunaga’s cinematography a little more. I imagine that it will garner a divided reaction, with some finding it too hard to bare through the whole thing, but I can’t imagine it getting much Oscar traction based on passion alone. It will be a pleasant and worthy surprise if it does score any nominations. At least an admirable effort that will be being remembered as one of the most notable war films of this decade.