Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (2015)
As I write, this film is about 24 hours old both in theaters and in its streaming incarnation on Netflix. It’s Netfix’s first foray into setting a reel with Oscar bait, and while “BEASTS OF NO NATION” is visually lush & remarkably real in wartime feel, it didn’t take long at all for it to descent into some very predictable schmaltz. I mean – not schmaltz as in a holiday film or a rom-com; it is, after all, a brutal picture about a young boy’s transition from innocent African villager to murderous child solider. The fake setting for this and the phony-acronymed rebel groups are interchangeable with those of their real-life counterparts. Any student of modern journalism and African war reporting knows this is a heartbreaking story that has all too many non-fictional counterparts. I just wish it hadn’t followed every single “genre" step I was expecting (or that anyone would expect), every step of the way.
Agu is an adorable, big-eyed young-teen boy from a loving family, whose village is safely lying in a demilitarized zone between government and rebel forces. We get about 15 minutes of familial bliss and childhood hijinks before the peace is broken by an government assault on the village, which results in the evacuation of Agu’s mother and sister, and the brutal execution-style murder of his father and brother. Agu escapes into the jungle, where he’s swept up by a rebel militia, commanded by the somewhat unhinged Commandant, played by Idris Elba, now and forever the fantastic Stringer Bell from “The Wire”. The militia essentially offers Agu a choice – become a solider or die. Thus his skinny frame is whipped into that of a murderous war criminal in very short order, and we get the watch the evisceration of his childhood as the rebels advance under the Commandant’s drug-fueled leadership.
Fukunaga attempts a great deal in his film that really never moves beyond the pedestrian and the predictable. When a fighting scene is rendered that’s supposed to show how disconnected Agu is from reality, it’s made up like some bad acid trip, with all flora and fauna turning a pinkish red, and everything happening, of course, in slo-mo. Despite bullets flying everywhere, Agu gets to stop, gape, turn around, take everything in, and gape some more. I wasn’t sure if I was watching a homage to Psych Out or The Trip, and I was scratching my head thinking, “did I miss the scene where the kid took drugs…?”. Then I realized he had been given some weird psychotropic drug rendered via a deliberate gash to his head, which made it all a bit more plausible but still singular for Agu, the only one of the doped-up child soldiers to respond in this way. Other visuals had an obvious CGI element to them – bodies exploding and dropping much too quickly – which offset the gorgeous jungle settings, which I understand to have been filmed in Ghana.
The Commandant is shown to be both monstrous (a child molester in addition to war criminal) and somewhat sympathetic at some level, but Elba's not enough to save this thing. I saw every move telegraphed from twenty minutes earlier, and I learned nothing except for how one might create Oscar bait that’s nowhere near robust enough to keep from dropping off the hook. Kudos for trying, however.