Beasts of No Nation (2015)
Pros: location photography, child actors
Cons: piling on
“Beasts of No Country,” the high-profile Netflix theatrical and streaming release of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s adaptation of the novel of the same name by Nigerian-American writer Uzodinma Iweala filmed in Ghana is not for the squeamish. Probably its target audience is unfamiliar with the phenomenon of child soldiers in African civil wars (including Ghana’s neighbors, Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as the Sudan and the Congo and the Central African Republic). I can’t imagine a viewer not sympathizing with the boy Agu (Ghanian Abraham Attah) , who, after seeing his father and older brother shot (by government forces) and escaping into the forest is brainwashed by the Commandant. Though a quite scary and manipulative dude, the rebel (NDF) commandant (never given a personal name) as played by Idris Elba (Luther) does not seem to me to be psychotic enough (in comparison with Mizinga Mwinga’s rebel commander, “The Great Tiger,” in “War Witch” (2012). Both are megalomaniacs. Both persuade their child soldiers that they are magically protected from harm from bullets and both are masters of rhetoric, extending into frothy cheerleader mumbo-jumbo. Both are paternalistic opportunists with no clear ideological rationale for the mayhem their irregular troops commit (so is Michel “Daddy” Obese (Abby Malibu Knag) in “The Silent Army” (2009)).
And though Agu’s initiation to killing is horrific and very graphically displayed, it not quite as traumatic as that of Komono in “War Witch” or of Abu in “The Silent Army.” (Both of them had to kill parents or be killed themselves.)
Agu is befriended by an agemate, Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom), who also is fiercely loyal to the Commandant, who used both boys sexually. That (plus drugs) seems to be what has made Strika mute, and Agu is far from garrulous even when in safety and telling a counselor that if he recounted what he had seen and done, the counselor would think Agu a beast or a devil.
As the title indicated, neither book nor movie specifes the country/civil war into which Agu is embroiled (and smoked, which I thought was a Melanesian rather than an African initiation constituent). Good as “Beasts” looks and sounds, and as good as the acting on display in it is, the most one can feel for Agu and Strika is pity, rather than caring about what happens to the somewhat older leads, Komono and Magician, in “War Witch.” (Both movies have voiceover narration, Komono’s directed at the baby she is carrying inside her.)
I think that the delusional Commandant at the end was influenced by Kurtz from “Heart of Darkness,” or perhaps by Marlon Brando’s upcountry Cambodian incarnation of him as a renegade US Army colonel in “Apocalypse Now.” The conception of the dangerous boys was perhaps influenced by “Children of Men,” though those Rio favela boys operated more independently than the Commandant’s cadres did.
Though probably best known for the first season of “True Detective” (2014), biracial (Japanese and Northern European ancestry) Fukunaga who was born in Oakland in 1977, seems to have an affinity for showing children in extreme situations: those fleeing gang violence from El Salvador across Mexico (mostly on the top of freight trains) in “Sin Nombre” (2009), the abused child Jane Eyre (2011), and now Agu. Though himself suffering from malaria, Fukunaga had to undertake operating the camera when the cameraman was disabled at the start of production. Dan Romer provided atmospheric, sometimes electronic music.
I often question MPAA ratings of sexual suggestion (let alone content), but think “Beasts” should have an NC-17 rating for ultra-graphic violence.
Trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xb9Ty-1frw
(I discussed the earlier African child soldier movies in my Kindle book , the book War Child and documentary movie “Lost Boys of the Sudan” on epinions.