Magazine article Variety

Beasts of No Nation

Magazine article Variety

Beasts of No Nation

Article excerpt

Beasts of No Nation

DIRECTOR: Cary Joji Fukunaga

STARRING: Idris Elba, Abraham Attah

The unsentimental education of an African child soldier is captured with savage beauty and matter-of-fact horror in "Beasts of No Nation," a tough-minded, tough-viewing chronicle of a civil war as seen through the eyes of one of its youngest casualties. Having moved with growing confidence from a slick Mexican gangland saga ("Sin nombre") to a tony Victorian lit adaptation ("Jane Eyre") to a crackerjack American crime serial (season one of "True Detective"), writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga pulls off another chameleonlike turn with this artful, accomplished but not entirely sustained adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala's 2005 debut novel. By turns lucid and a bit logy, and undeniably overlong, it's nevertheless the rare American movie to enter a distant land and emerge with a sense of lived-in human experience rather than a well-meaning Third World postcard. Still, its aesthetic integrity won't make the grueling subject matter an easier sell to the mainstream.

Following its festival premieres at Venice, Telluride and Toronto, Fukunaga's long-gestating passion project will prove a significant test of Netflix's arthouse reach and marketing savvy when it rolls out Oct. 16 via the company's streaming service, simultaneous with its limited theatrical release through Bleecker Street Media. Still, it's unclear if the relative ease of on-demand viewing will offset the challenge of a starkly violent 136-minute war drama with no recognizable cast names except Idris Elba, providing a lone burst of star wattage in a context that could otherwise scarcely feel more harrowingly grounded in reality.

This is the story of Agu (Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah), a young boy from an unnamed African country who finds himself orphaned amid a sudden outbreak of violence, then swiftly adopted by a warlord known as the Commandant (Elba), who trains him to be a guerrilla fighter in a conflict he's barely old enough to comprehend. In the novel, which wove together scenes from Agu's brutal new life with memories of happier days at home with his family, Iweala wrote in a poetically primitive first-person voice that gave even the flashbacks a present-tense urgency.

Fukunaga has retained many of the story's particulars but reshuffled them into a more straightforward linear narrative, which begins with a warm, joyous portrait of Agu's early childhood. But everything changes as military tanks roll into their village and a reign of terror begins. In a scene of overwhelming chaos and panic, Agu is abruptly separated from his mother and little sister, and before long his father and his brother have left him as well, gunned down in a surge of carnage that is senseless and sudden, hut not inexplicable. One of the key lessons of "Beasts of No Nation" is that all violence has a point of origin.

Before long, Agu will find himself clad in makeshift fatigues, wielding a machete, and inflicting his own horrors as a member of a rebel army. Its leader, the Commandant, is a fiery seducer of minds and souls who incites his young conscripts to commit horrific acts of slaughter in the name of revenge. Barking and cajoling, he whips his young warriors into action with furious rhetoric, even as he tries to lull them into a sense of familial camaraderie. By recasting himself as a sort of surrogate father figure, he can not only displace the memory of their parents, but also exploit it for his own murderous ends.

In Flba's skillfully underplayed performance, the Commandant emerges as both a charismatic villain in the grand Hollywood tradition and a persuasive product of his environment. …

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