Beasts of No Nation is a strange film. It’s anchored by two powerful performances, deals with timely and horrific subject matter, and is ably directed and photographed, but leaves almost no impression. If anything, it actually manages to make its cavalcade of horrors … kind of boring and distancing. Whether that’s by accident or design, the film’s an overlong slog that might’ve worked better as a mini-series, rather than Netflix’s first foray into full-on cinematic releases.
Focused on the awful realities of children conscripted into guerrilla warfare in an unnamed West African country, Beasts of No Nation follows Agu (nuanced and impressive first-timer Abraham Attah), a young, slight boy whose family is brutally killed by government forces. Escaping into the bush, he falls under the spell of the Commandant (Idris Elba), a Fagin-like figure leading a battalion of traumatized children.
From here, horrors mount – brutality, rape, murder, the numbing use of narcotics by grade-school kids to inure them to the savage conditions in which they find themselves. Director Cari Joji Fukanaga makes the most of depressing images – heavily armed children carrying boxes of ammunition through the jungle, the Commandant’s charismatic team spirit exercises blending traditional animist ritual with brainwashing, machetes cleaving heads in two. Some of the action-oriented set pieces are appropriately tense and frightening, carried out in a similar, long-take spirit to Fukanaga’s work on True Detective.
As the film continues, though, the repetition of atrocities becomes deadening. In one sense, this might be a question of technique – Agu, as audience surrogate, is also increasingly hardened, his easy laughter vanishing and replaced by cold-eyed, pitiless stares at the events transpiring. Perhaps we’re meant to share in this, turning cold ourselves along with our protagonist.
But it’s hard not to feel that, when a woman is shot in the head while being raped by soldiers and the overall effect is something like boredom, something has gone terribly wrong in the telling. The contrast between these scenes and the plodding narration add to the tonal strangeness, too, as does the plot device of using a semi-fictional country as the locale. Both indicate a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be, except Serious.
Along with Attah’s impressive transition from carefree youth to tiny, baby-faced war machine, Elba’s turn as the Commandant is also masterful. Bringing his enormous amount of charisma to a terrifying role, he manages to thread the needle, revealing both wanton cruelty and the kind of charm that would appeal to these abandoned children, and finally a wounded vulnerability as things spiral out of control.
There was a lot of hand-wringing and allegations of racism when he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award – much of it extremely justified – but there’s also the not-insignificant issue that the Commandant was always going to be a hard sell, no matter how good the performance. It’s not too surprising that Academy voters – conservative, enamored with portrayals of nobility and grace (especially for Black actors, for whom this usually means “slave” or “Magic Negro”) – might shy away from a monstrous, child-raping war criminal who gradually turns into a mad, rebel Aguirre, setting up a bizarre empire in the remote jungle.
But the performances aren’t what Beasts of No Nation leaves in its wake, so much as a sense of its weird, uneven pacing and litany of evils that turn uncomfortably banal. Maybe that banality is a triumph of realism, of a sort, but it’s not much fun to experience. Being fun isn’t necessarily a film’s job, but being interesting should be, and Beasts‘ interest fades minute by minute from the halfway point on. It would be unfair to say the performances are “wasted,” but both Elba and young Attah deserve a better script than the one they got.