Review: Cary Fukunaga’s ‘Beasts of No Nation’ is a visionary epic that must be seen

TELLURIDE – Agu is a fictional character. He lives in a fictional country in the middle of an imaginary civil war.  In reality, there are thousands of Agu”s in Africa today, boys that are recruited or forced to play soldier in a multitude of armed conflicts across the continent (and the world).  You may have seen news reports or documentaries on these child warriors, but acclaimed filmmaker Cary Fukunaga”s cinematic vision, as depicted in “Beasts of No Nation,” won't let you look away from the real life horrors still taking place on that far off continent.

Adapted from Uzodinma Iweala”s novel of the same name, “Beasts” begins with Agu (a remarkable Abraham Attah) living a peaceful life with his family in what appears to be a medium sized African town in an unnamed West African country.  His father teaches at the local school, his older brother is primarily concerned with getting the attention of a beautiful girl and his beloved mother spends most of her time raising Agu”s toddler sister.  They all help care for his grandfather, who appears to be suffering from severe dementia.  It”s not perfect, but it”s idyllic enough that laughs are plentiful and the future seems bright.  All that changes when a military coup occurs and a civil war erupts across the nation.  

As you'd expect, the conflict between the government”s military forces and the rebels eventually makes it to Agu's town.  His mother and sister make it out before the battle begins, but his father fails in finding him transport out of the crossfire.  The government soldiers actually save the town (what”s left of it after a rain of gunfire).  Agu”s nightmare truly begins when the soldiers mistakenly believe a cadre of men including his father, brother and grandfather are revel sympathizers.  Only Agu is able to escape their judgment and he soon finds himself wandering the forest petrified, tiried and hungry.  Eventually he”s captured by a rag-tag rebel battalion led by a charismatic leader known only as the Commandant (Idris Elba).

As soon as you recognize the young soldiers in the Commandant”s contingent it's obvious Agu”s fate is sealed.  Immediately a favorite of the Commandant due to his educational upbringing, Agu is forced to go through training to become an active soldier.  This initiation is sealed during a raid on a government convoy where Commandant instructs Agu to kill a man who, weeping for his life, claims he”s only an engineer working on bridges and not a soldier.  Shockingly, Agu succumbs to the pressure in a brutal and horrifying way.  He's so shaken from his actions, Agu falls to the ground and throws up.  While this act has put him in the good graces of Commandant and proved his worth to the rest of the squadron, but Agu still hopes he”ll find a way to escape and reunite with his mother in the capital city.

Fukunaga not only directed the film but also co-wrote the screenplay and served as director of photography.  His efforts have resulted in a brazenly confident piece of cinematic art where every image immerses you deeper and deeper into Agu”s horror.  

On particularly powerful sequence is centered on an attack against enemy forces in a mostly abandoned village.  Agu has unknowingly been drugged by another one of the rebel soldiers.  As his battalion charges into the conflict Fukunaga conveys the hallucinogenic imagery swelling in Agu”s mind by turning the green foliage in the area pink.  As the fighting subsides Agu stops to take in the results of the carnage and Fukunaga slowly has the pink fade back into a harsh green reality.  

Fukunaga also includes a number of extended single takes throughout the picture.  They don”t have the impact of his signature moment from the first season of “True Detective,” but that”s because the camera or its subjects are almost always moving. They feel more engrained into the material even though they are just as impressive.

Elba is the only recognizable actor in the picture and his performance sticks with you as much as Attah”s will.  In the wrong hands the Commandant could be a one-note villain whose actions only serve to further Agu”s hell.  Instead, Elba (and Fukunaga) reveals the inner-frustration of a man who likely hates what he”s become, but is so power hungry he”ll sacrifice any of his soldiers to impress his boss, the Supreme Commander.   

First time film actor Abraham Attah is absolutely incredible.  The youngster radiates Agu”s feelings so strongly its hard not to be emotionally invested in his eventual fate.  As much as Fukunaga”s creativity fuels the film”s narrative, unless you believe in the journey it won”t amount to much.  Attah”s portrayal is simply paramount to the film”s success.

If Fukunaga makes any missteps its with keeping the Commandant”s sexual abuse tendencies in the movie and making Agu his primary a victim.  This was touched upon more in Iweala”s book, but as much as it”s a real world problem it likely wasn”t necessary here.  Agu has been through so much before this scene (and will endure more following it) that it feels superfluous.

Overall, “Beasts” is just a beast of a movie.  An epic tale that will not only bring to light the epidemic of children enslaved into warfare, but open another window to the barbaric armed conflicts that continue to plague Africa while much of the world continues turns the other cheek.

“Beasts of No Nation” opens in theaters on Oct. 16. It will also debut on Netflix around the world on the same date.