Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Beasts of No Nation: Sun, Why Do You Shine?

Abraham Attah and Idris Elba in the Netflix original film Beasts of No Nation. (Photo: Shawn Greene/Netflix)

It seems like Beasts of No Nation has been fermenting in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s brain for a long time. Busy until recently with HBO’s True Detective – the second season of which saw him cutting back his involvement from directing to just producing – he has finally had the chance to pursue this project, which he has written, directed, produced, and shot all by himself. That sort of personal dedication speaks to a passionate need to bring this story to life, and that passion is clear in every frame of his harrowing war drama, even if it doesn’t always pay off for the viewer. At least Fukunaga finally got to scratch his itch.

Beasts is the story of Agu (Abraham Attah), a bright boy from a happy family who lives in a village caught between warring military factions. The military junta in this unnamed region interrupts his idyllic life by assaulting the town, forcing his mother to flee to a refugee camp and killing his father and brother. In the turmoil of the junta’s attack, Agu runs into the bush and wanders for days in a cloud of grief, before The Commandant (Idris Elba) and his band of revolutionary fighters find him and enlist him on the spot. The film follows Agu from there as he is indoctrinated into their ranks and forced to witness – and ultimately commit – the same horrors that were visited upon his own family.

Agu adjusts well once his survival is given purpose. He enjoys the perks of the job, like the blend of cocaine and gunpowder called Brown-Brown which he is taught to rub into a shallow cut. He befriends some other soldiers around his age, like the silent Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), whose voice was long ago scared away by some unnamed trauma. The rest of the company is memorable too, including Kurt Egyiawan as 2-IC (“second in command,” natch) and Tripod (Annointed Wesseh), whose name becomes clear when you see him wading into battle wearing nothing but his machine gun. Most of the film’s impact comes from The Commandant himself, thanks to Elba’s natural magnetism and effortless poise (the fact that the rest of the cast are mostly non-professional actors is a factor too, although I don’t wish to shortchange their efforts, especially those of Attah, who makes Agu the emotional core of the film). The character is underwritten, though, meaning that while Elba imbues him with a powerful charisma – chanting a battle cry while passing his hand over each soldier in turn like some sort of warrior shaman, before leading them into battle unarmed, waving a feathered totem as though he could swat away bullets with the power of his belief – he has no measurable arc, and his presence in the film feels more decorative than meaningful. He is an objectively evil man, a child rapist and a killer of innocents, whose deeper motivations and feelings are not explored, and whose affable nature is left to clash, tonally at least, with the sins we watch him commit.

Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation.

The film feels disjointed, like a series of barely-connected vignettes, to the point that it loses its sense of pacing and drifts along from one scene to the next. Several stand out as exceptional, like Agu’s first real battle (which is shown as a colourless dream, apart from the splashes of red that fill the frame like a horrifying psychedelic trip), and a particularly tense convoy ambush, where The Commandant tells Agu he is going to kill an engineering student with a machete – but there is little, narratively or thematically, to tie these setpieces together. The lovely, dreamlike synth score reinforces this feeling too, creating a strange – and sleep-inducing – juxtaposition with the carnage on display. If all this was intentional, it was probably to evoke in us the same fog of aimlessness through which Agu is constantly drifting. That might be a cute conceit, but it doesn’t make for a very engaging film. Beasts is completely beautiful, of course, and chock full of striking imagery (Agu wades through the fetid red water of a clay trench, the camera following him as he passes his comrades, hunched and hallucinating there), which helps, but also exposes a different problem. Is a film that’s ostensibly an “issue film” – a movie that tackles a specific and complicated subject – still effective if it indulges more in its artistic values than in the issue it’s addressing?

Moreover, Beasts seems unsure of which particular issue it’s trying to address. Is it meant to highlight a specific real-life conflict, or simply point to the general discord in West Africa by keeping the film’s locales anonymous? Is it about the reality of children in war, or the men who enlist them, or both? Is it about megalomania, the use and abuse of power, or the nobility of leadership? Beasts is all of these things, and none of them, hinting that it might explore these issues in depth and then failing to follow through. It doesn’t really work as an allegory, or a morality play, or a character study. It works, at least, as a series of beautiful and haunting images played in sequence – but ultimately doesn’t offer much more than that. (As an aside, I was glad the film didn’t muddy the water further by tackling any racial issues, except in the deliciously cutting depiction of the only white person in the film: a female journalist who snaps photos of Agu and his battalion as her UN jeep drives past them, no doubt on her way to another Pulitzer prize and a life of wealth and peace.)

With the film’s ending, Fukunaga discards any serious commentary he might have made in favour of presenting something that’s visually captivating, but thematically empty: Agu running into the sea to join a group of happy children who are playing there, supposedly representing his willingness to leave his sins and his scars in the past and run towards a better future. That facile cop-out really comes to encapsulate the film as a whole: it looks amazing, and has a lot to say, but it fumbles the words as they come out. Beasts was truly Fukunaga’s passion project and that investment is on full display, but the end result demonstrates that while he is a strong director and an exceptional cinematographer, he should have sought help on the screenplay. The first season of True Detective proved that real magic happens when he collaborates with a good screenwriter – so taking on this whole project by himself, while an admirable show of initiative, was really a step backwards in what is otherwise a very promising career.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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