To Western audiences, Africa remains the dark continent of cinema. Few of the movies we see are about or set in that part of the world, despite a burgeoning film industry in Nigeria, dubbed “Nollywood,” that puts out more movies per year than Hollywood.
It takes relative marquee names like actor-producer Idris Elba (“The Wire,” “Prometheus”) and writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga (“True Detective”) to bring a movie like “Beasts of No Nation” to our attention, and maybe adventurous backers like Net-flix, which is streaming the film the same day it arrives in theaters. Your job is just to watch it, as hard and necessary as that may be.
Based on the 2005 novel by Uzodinma Iweala (with a title swiped from an old Fela song), “Beasts of No Nation” is the story of a child soldier in an unnamed West African country fragmented by civil war. Geography and specific politics don’t matter so much as the slow drowning of civilization. The boy, Agu, is played by a watchful newcomer named Abraham Attah, and “Beasts of No Nation” does itself a favor by insisting on the fragile normality of his village life with his teacher father (Kobina Amissah-Sam), girl-crazy teenage brother (Frances Weddey), and stressed-out mother (Ama K. Abebrese).
They’re living in a buffer zone and then the buffer zone is gone, with soldiers under the flags of meaningless acronyms filling the square with bullets. Agu escapes into the bush and is swept up by the adolescent army of the Commandant (Elba), a charismatic warlord who trains him in guerrilla tactics and brainwashes the grieving boy with promises of revenge. Against whom is not entirely clear.
The movie holds on to a fair chunk of the book’s first-person narration, which is critical, because it establishes Agu as a character with his own thoughts and ethics rather than merely a shellshocked onlooker. There comes a moment when the boy has to cross the line from theory to action — from training to murder — and “Beasts of No Nation” wants us to look that moment square in the face. It is awful, it has happened and is happening still, and for once you aren’t able to turn the page or switch to another channel. And then the movie invites us to wonder what happens to the child who is now a murderer. “It is the worst sin, but it is the right sin to be doing,” Agu tells himself, but that lie doesn’t last. Before long, he is begging the sun to stop shining on this world.
Raised in California, Fukunaga is the rare US filmmaker who’s actively curious about people elsewhere, and his 2009 breakthrough, “Sin Nombre,” was an emotional thriller about two Honduran kids trying to cross from Mexico into the United States. The first season of “True Detective,” which he directed, was most notable for its overpowering sense of dread — of evil spreading like kudzu until it choked off humanity. That lushness of entropy, of jungle reclaiming civilization, is palpable in “Beasts of No Nation.” You feel it in the controlled chaos of Fukunaga’s cinematography and in Dan Romer’s soundtrack music, which presses down like a heavy sky. And you especially feel it in Elba’s swaggering, biblically corrupt Commandant, who almost gets you to believe he’s fighting for something other than himself.
At two hours and 17 minutes, “Beasts of No Nation” is overlong and feels it. Fukunaga is guilty of wanting to pack everything in: details like the foreigners with briefcases of money in a warlord’s waiting room, characters like Agu’s fellow soldier and protector Strika (Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom Quaye), a little boy made feral and mute from whatever has happened to him. And the idea that there may be life after war and murder, even for the murderers, and what that might look like — what burdens you might be allowed to put down and what you’ll carry forward forever. The movie’s too wise, and too weary, to have a moral beyond that.
★ ★ ★ ½
BEASTS OF NO NATION
Written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, based on a novel by Uzodinma Iweala. Starring Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom Quaye. At Kendall Square. 137 minutes. Unrated (as
R: graphic war violence)