I wanted to love Beasts of No Nation. I really did. I adored Fukunaga’s direction in True Detective, I’m a big fan of Idris Elba, and I find the subject matter of the film harrowing. I was primed to love this film. But for me, it just didn’t deliver.
The visuals are by far the best part of the film. The location and use of colour are particularly engaging. The enormous, vibrant African bush makes the human affairs seem petty in comparison. I particularly liked the drug attack sequence referencing Richard Mosse’s work with colour.
Elba delivered a pretty good performance, but this is far from his best role. The lead actor, Attah, was more than capable, which is no small feat for an actor of his age.
The loss of innocence theme was not handled well, in my opinion. I honestly thought it was rather rote at times; we’ve seen scenes like “new soldier pressured to kill innocent to become accepted” a thousand times and this iteration added nothing that hasn’t been said before.
Agu’s characterisation is weak, to my eyes. Perhaps the point is to illustrate how a child lacks the capacity to grapple with matters of war and the savagery of human nature, but a clearer attempt to communicate that would have been better for as it stands, Agu basically just commits increasingly violent acts with the film declining to really probe at his emotional state. The ending was thought-provoking, with Agu seamlessly rejoining classmates in the water in childlike play, after his very adult acts a soldier – if the larger commentary here was how children lived in the now, how a child lacks the capacity to consider morally complex acts, then I would have preferred this be iterated literally anywhere besides just the very ending.
The music, on its own, is appealing, but I thought it’s integration into the film left much to be desired. I think natural soundscapes (i.e. all diagetic) might have strengthened the realism tone the film was going for, as the highly emotive soundtrack was distracting and prescriptive at times.
The narrative in the second half of the film basically follows developments around the Commandant. I would have preferred it further examine the nature of child soldiers, or at least the relationship between the child soldiers and the Commandment. I felt like much of the movie was wasted on plot development that didn’t really make any greater point to the audience, or offer any visually arresting setpieces.
I’ve read a lot of comments on the sexual violence in the film; some praising it for depicting it without the gory visuals, but without whitewashing it either. I’m undecided on my own opinion. While the film is set in a fictional (or at least, unmentioned) country and war, it definitely aims for realism. I’m not sure it reaches it though, with some actual experts on the topic critiquing some omissions (this article means the omission of the huge percentage of female child soldiers subjected to harrowing acts, the nature of peacekeepers, specifics in the indoctrination of children, and more – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/ghana/11932578/Why-Beasts-of-No-Nation-fails-to-tell-the-whole-story-about-child-soldiers.html).
The battle scenes in the film are excellent, but excellent battle scenes impressing audiences with their execution but repulsing them with their depiction of violence isn’t something new. War movies have achieved such for decades and decades. Perhaps the film would have been stronger if it freed itself of its awkward writing; as a silent film or a film stripped down to its setpieces (like the Mad Max films). If a complex, nuanced subject like African indepednance struggles and child soldiers is to be tackled, I’d rather it either be a purely visceral, visual attempt, or an earnest nuanced attempt. Not this sort of half-baked writing propping up some excellent setpieces. The whole film, I felt as it Fukunaga was keeping me at arm’s length; tantalising me with extraordinary setpieces and cinematography, but preventing any substantial engagement with the characters or the specifics of these sorts of child soldier and war situations.
I give it two and a half battalions, and an airstrike.