Beasts of No Nation is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of civil war in an unnamed African country. It takes as its inciting incident an attack that leaves a young boy orphaned, then conscripted into an army of child soldiers. It’s certainly not an uncommon trope of world cinema to put a young child in harm’s way as a pure prism through which to view the evil that men do, and to tearfully consider the resiliency of the human spirit even and especially in the face of a tragic loss of innocence. See Grave of the Fireflies, or Empire of the Sun, or Pan’s Labyrinth, or Forbidden Games, or, you get the picture. But where those films found authentic and nuanced juxtaposition of the beauty of childhood and the horror of war, Beasts of No Nation is content to be gorgeously grim and thin.
Writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga (of tense immigration thriller Sin Nombre, a functional Jane Eyre. and the overrated True Detective’s first season) certainly has a command of filmmaking craft, making a technically well-made picture. It’s attractively photographed with lush jungles and dusty villages, staged with slick competence for violence and chaos, and cut together with a languid patience that turns action eerie and stasis thickly slow. He tells a harrowing story (adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s novel) through numbing aestheticized glossiness, wallowing in misery and violence while swooning on its own style. A pretty and forceful work, it’s nonetheless a self-satisfied approach to a real world crisis, content it’ll shock and jolt with its strong performances and confident unease without a need to dig beyond the upsetting surface details.
Early scenes show us a happy boy (Abraham Attah) with a wide smile and easy laugh. He runs through his village playing with friends, joking with family members, and having a good time. Sure, he knows there’s a war going on, but it’s far away, and the soldiers stationed at the outskirts of town are pleasantly willing to chat with a bunch of kids. But soon the conflict arrives, his family is dead or missing, and the film’s rambling charm is cut short by fear. Enter a commandant (Idris Elba) and his army of lost boys, a collection of young men from their pre-teens into their twenties who do his looting and killing in the name of freeing and protecting their country. (Here’s where the film’s lack of geopolitical specificity muddies easy comprehension of the various combatant’s objectives.) For the boy, nothing will be the same again.
Through persuasive indoctrination scenes, the boy comes to believe his only option is to fight for this army. He’s told his combat will avenge his dead father and brothers. He’s told he will one day be reunited with his mother. The cost is high. The commandant abuses his underlings in every sense of the word, physically, emotionally, and sexually. He puts his new recruits through a brutal hazing, building hardened soldiers out of innocent boys trapped under his command. They toughen, growing callous under his forceful command. When the boy is handed a machete and told to kill a prisoner with it, he hesitates, then slams the edge of the blade into the pleading man’s skull. He’s frightened, partly because of his panic, but partly because of the sense of power, agency over life and death. It’s a good, cheap metaphor for systems of abusive power and how they are passed down through generations. What follows is a procession of horrors and battles—gore, torture, psychological mind games, drugs, weapons, ambushes, and heavily implied rape.
One scene sparks to life: a freshly victimized boy limps out of the commandant’s room; another boy sees and offers silent support. They lean on each other, wordless understanding passing between them. A moment like that shows how much simple humanity is otherwise missing from the spectacle of monotonous pain. But it’s right there in the performances, strong work in a frustratingly vague movie. Attah, in a very strong acting debut, goes from adorable scamp to shell-shocked veteran in a performance of great pain and sadness. Elba, on the other hand, is an unknowable presence, a towering charismatic evil whose only characterizing comes from his greed and ferocious calm, even as he strengthens his grip out of flashes of insecurity. He’s warm and terrifying, like a demented football coach, giving pep talks before sending boys to die.
Fukunaga moves from miserable detail to miserable detail, with nothing more to say than “Isn’t this awful?” And it is, obviously and clearly in every aspect of the situations. But there comes a point where unflinching misery becomes simple gawking. The pain is undifferentiated, unmodulated. We’re to be in awe of its awfulness, but it makes for a thin experience, one simple idea expressed repeatedly with no context, no insight, no additional nuance or tenderness, and no forward momentum. It’s one brutal obvious point after the next. Fukunaga can stage a rough battle with clarity and make it hurt, but his interest in the horror of war seems perfunctory, with pretty sun-dappled images and a swooning score of distanced dazed synths. The characters remain sparsely understood, a sea of background extras behind two leads who work hard to provide additional layers behind first impressions. They’re compelling despite a film that’s more interested in showing off its pretend realism than digging into its scenario’s real moral dilemmas.