Beasts of No Nation (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Beasts of No Nation (2015)

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Agu lives a modest life with his cheery family and sells what he can to the soldiers to make a little extra money.  But when his family does not escape the clash between rebels and soldiers he watches as those he loves are gunned down.  By chance he meets a rebel leader, the Commandant, who will teach Agu any child can reach the violent heights of men.  Cary Fukunaga writes the screenplay for and directs Beasts of No Nation and stars Abraham Attah and Idris Elba.

There's the man but will he lead supremeWhen Beasts of No Nation finished and the credits rolled my mind waged a silent war with itself to figure out just what Cary Fukunaga's movie meant to me.  I'm happy that a deeply personal project such as this could survive the eleven or so companies involved in its development.  There's also a care here to not present any of the characters as a blankly sympathetic or overtly evil Other of an African country.

Then my mind returned to the scene where Agu (Abraham Attah) murders an innocent student.  The student pleads with the coiled rage inside Agu, speaking of his university and family waiting for him back home.  At Commandant's (Idris Elba) order Agu brings the long machete blade down on the student's skull.  Fukunaga's camera lingers from Agu's perspective to watch the life drain away from the student's eyes.  Agu and the rest of the children begin slashing at the body while the world slows.

Fukunaga composed this scene carefully, and denies us the vicarious thrill of the murder by slowing the consequences down.  But as the boys bring their blades down the blood and dirt splatter onto the camera lens with the same careful energy as the scenes leading up to the student's murder.  This is filmed like a dream, and Fukunaga's previous skill from the first season of True Detective and Jane Eyre is in full bloom, it's that the combination of violence, some self-awareness with the lens splatter, and gorgeous staging don't lend itself to Agu's point of view nor anyone else in the scene.  With Beasts of No Nation I find myself succumbing to the Devil as he whispers, "It's pretty, but is it art?"

While I'm not keen on Fukunaga's dream-like work throughout Beasts of No Nation, I love the beautiful framing of the opening scenes.

While I'm not keen on Fukunaga's dream-like work throughout Beasts of No Nation, I love the beautiful framing of the opening scenes.

I can't deny the artistry behind Fukunaga's work here, especially in the opening scenes of Beasts of No Nation.  We're so used to stereotypically helpless or bloodthirsty depictions of conflicts which rage across the African continent.  Fukunaga wisely follows the novel's lead in leaving the site of the conflict in Beasts of No Nation without a name as this frees him to work with those African signifiers.  There's a beautiful sequence where children take the broken frame of a television to sell to the soldiers and reenact different shows to sell their "product", depicting the children as less than helpless and the soldiers as more annoyed than bloodthirsty.

This signals straight away that the fictions we spread in America about despairing or violent African countries are just that.  Fukunaga dispels the fictions further with intimate sequences of the village life as the various families play in the colorful landscape.  When danger comes it's still at a distance as Agu listens into his parents arguing about what they will do with the kids and the parents can only be seen in semi-focus through the candlelit haze of a hole in the wall.  Key to this scene is how Agu's brother materializes suddenly from the dark.  There is only the illusion of solitude in their land with someone always waiting to break the peace.

The peace is first broken by the arrival of the national army when they execute Agu's family after being incorrectly told they were not of the village.  But it's the second break which introduces the arguably strongest and complicating aspect Beasts of No Nation.  As the Commandant, Elba shows a scary focus to the art of war which displays the same charismatic leadership of earlier roles and distills it to pure violent artistry.

Elba and Fukunaga understand it's the promise of what the Commandant can inspire which is more terrifying than any violence he may carry out with his hands.  With each self-mythologizing tale and success in battle he becomes as much prophet as military leader, and it's important that when his rule is threatened the violent act which leads to the pretenders death happens off-screen.  Better to leave the myth intact than show the Commandant can get blood on his hands like the rest of his soldiers.  The Commandant is tender with his soldiers, but also inspires the kind of dedication Marlon Brando spoke of decades ago when he said, "If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles would be over very quickly."

Hints about the separation of Agu's family dot this early bedroom scene with the ghosts they will become.

Hints about the separation of Agu's family dot this early bedroom scene with the ghosts they will become.

Yet, amidst the violence, Fukunaga's dreamlike tone never wavers.  Even when the brilliant colors of the opening scenes in the village gives way to crops red with the blood of war.  Whose dream is this?  Agu's narration provides hints that he is trying to ally his perception of these events with an uncaring God and the Commandant has been listening to his own speeches for so long his presentation could stand to be even more mythic if Beasts of No Nation were from his perspective.  The trouble with the dreamy visuals and violent acts is that the violence comes off as something to be treated delicately instead of something which deserves condemnation.

What are we to make of the atrocities then, when Agu's family is executed or he is pushed to kill the innocent student?  This is where Fukunaga's direction brings us to an uneasy bridge between the violence and the artistry.  With each tragedy it felt as though Fukunaga was pushing toward horrific beauty but the former is lost in the latter.  Perhaps this is Fukunaga's way of bringing out the element of the sublime, that wonderful experience which crushes as it empowers.  But the Commandant is a human force, not a natural law, and the landscape provides as much shelter as it does an opening to become one with the earth.

Maybe this is all a long-winded attempt to say what I should have made clear up-front.  Beasts of No Nation left me dissatisfied, but not unhappy, and I love how Fukunaga is traversing the globe to leave his mark with cinema.  Maybe Beasts of No Nation is someone's favorite movie this year and we can have a stirring discussion about why it roused emotions I did not feel.  Or maybe I'll meet others who admire Fukunaga's photography and have little to say about the rest.

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Tail - Beasts of No NationBeasts of No Nation (2015)

Screenplay written and directed by Cary Fukunaga.
Starring Abraham Attah and Idris Elba.

Posted by Andrew

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