Beasts of No Nation is such a worthy, timely, thoughtful drama that the worst you can say about it is that it’s a shame it’s only good and not amazing. Adapted, shot, and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (who previously directed 2009’s Sin Nombre and the first season of True Detective), this immersive look at the life of an African child soldier has plenty of attributes—it’s stunningly shot, and Idris Elba is terrific as a casually callous commandant—but it never quite seizes the greatness within its grasp. That doesn’t make it a disappointment, but it does leave you wondering what might have been.
Based on Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel, Beasts of No Nation stars newcomer Abraham Attah as Agu, who lives in an unspecified West African nation. We see enough of his family life to know that although he lives in poverty, he’s a happy boy, which makes the distant rumblings of war all the more upsetting. What becomes clear is that the country’s government is corrupt, and rebel forces are sweeping through the area, and soon Agu is caught in the crossfire. He manages to escape while his father and brother are killed by government troops—his mother and sister get away, though the family ends up separated—but he ends up being taken in by one of the rebel squadrons.
They’re led by Elba, who is only referred to as Commandant and is left intentionally opaque. Part Kilgore and part Kurtz, Commandant directs his troops through this particular Apocalypse Now of indiscriminate warfare, a charismatic figure who nonetheless has a taste for bloodshed and expects his child soldiers to exhibit the same. The impressionable Agu is frighteningly malleable, and after an initial reluctance proves to be quite willing to bury a machete into the skull of a captured enemy, egged on by Commandant’s insistence that the man was partly responsible for the upending of Agu’s happy life.
At a time when the existence of child soldiers is a well-known, grim fact of life—whether from watching the news or such foreign films as War Witch and Alias Maria—Beasts of No Nation doesn’t just feel relevant, but important, and that ends up being part of the movie’s limitation. In general, “important” movies can be a double-edged sword, bringing to light urgent causes but sometimes at the expense of drama, suspense, and the other gut-level reasons why movies can be so gripping. We get wrapped up in the film less because it’s captivating than because we feel like we should.
Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre ran a similar risk, depicting a group of young Mexican and Honduran characters trying to make their way to America, but the preciseness of the storytelling and the intensity of the thriller elements kept it from feeling like a mere “message movie.” This one’s a little less successful, if only due to its similarity to other war movies. The West African setting is unique, but the insights are reminiscent of films like Apocalypse Now and The Thin Red Line, in which innocence is trampled amid the horrifying beauty of jungle warfare. (The movie was largely shot in Ghana, where the producers found Attah, and Fukunaga depicts his fictional nation as a rich Eden despoiled by armed conflict in which the good guys and bad guys can sometimes be indistinguishable.)
The film is told from Agu’s perspective, and with his broken English and naive observations, his occasional voiceover narration is meant to underline just how young and inexperienced he and his fellow child soldiers are—how they’ve essentially been brainwashed to become tiny killers without conscience. This fact never stops being unsettling, although non-professional actor Attah never quite rises above being a pungent symbol. Much better is Elba, who brings such lived-in menace to his role that we don’t quite think of him as evil. That’s because Commandant doesn’t seem himself that way, either: From his perspective, he’s a noble warrior trying to rid his beloved land of the bastards that ruined it. Beasts of No Nation’s cruelest irony is that, if this story was shifted just slightly, Commandant and his kids would be the clear-cut heroes fighting for justice. What’s great is that Elba plays his character that way regardless, which makes the man’s growing monstrousness and ego all the more gripping.
At 38, Fukunaga has already established himself as an excellent filmmaker of atmosphere. Even in his 2011 remake of Jane Eyre with Michael Fassbender, mood dominated everything else, sucking us into a world so completely that we felt we could roam around and get lost in it. There are a few mild plot twists here, but they’re not what stays with you. Rather, you remember the sweaty, untamed ferocity—whether it’s in these West African jungles, the soldiers themselves, or the madly unpredictable war in which they’re engaged. (There are a couple unspeakably gorgeous battle scenes, Fukunaga juxtaposing the enrapturing landscapes with the horrors of war in Malick-ian fashion. One of the big stories around this movie is that Netflix will start streaming it on Friday, the same day it’s available in some theaters. But unless you’ve got a huge TV at home, you may want to make the trek to the multiplex if it’s showing there.)
It’s a cliché to say that a movie’s setting becomes a character in the story, but Fukunaga seems to have conceived Beasts of No Nation with that strategy in mind, plunging us into an environment where we can’t savor the visuals too long because we know death is always potentially around the corner. On one level, it’s a bit of a letdown that he hasn’t conceived a story that’s as vivid as the imagery, but on another, that may be part of his point. War movies are a staple because war is always with us: This one would just like us to remember some of the faces fighting these battles, and how young they are.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.