What a smile! One large lamp for a face,
smaller lanterns where skin stretches over
bones waiting for muscle, body all angles.
His Kalashnikov fires at each moving
thing before he knows what he drags
down. He halts movement of every
kind and fails to weigh whom he stops
dead or maims, his bullets
like jabs thrown before the thought
to throw them, involuntary shudders
when someone, somewhere, steps over
his shallow, unmarked, mass grave.
But his smile remains undimmed,
inviting, not knowing what hit him,
what snuffs out the wicks in his eyes.
Except that he moves and a face just like
his figures like him to stop all action
with a flick of finger on the trigger. —Fred D’Aguiar
The violence in Cary Fukunaga’s exquisite Beasts of No Nation is graphic. But so is its purity of heart. In America, young white boys are told that the world owes them something just by virtue of their being born. Once they become teenagers it starts to dawn on them that this plan isn’t going to work out. Their lives haven’t lived up to the promise of the American dream, of all of the animated and live action films aimed at them that reinforce the idea that they are special, that they matter. Most of them just go on to live their unadorned lives anyway. Some of them pick up a weapon and shoot people before taking their own lives. Contrast that bizarre, aberrant phenomena with child soldiers in Africa and other places where boys are given no other choice but to pick up a weapon and start shooting people. That’s if they’re lucky. That’s if they aren’t killed first.
Written, directed and filmed by wunderkind Cary Fukunaga, Beasts of No Nation lasts 133 minutes and throughout its duration it depicts one horror after another, with fleeting moments of humanity. Appearing like unintentional daisies in a landfill, our young soldier clings to those moments as they are taken away one at a time, his own existence proof of the absence of God. This is the childhood of an ordinary boy soldier raised to further some war lord’s cause. Poverty and corruption go hand in hand in places most Americans pretend not to know exist. This brilliantly made, wholly original war epic belongs on the same shelf as Apocalypse Now and yet was rejected by every studio until Netflix came to the rescue.
Now the film can have a chance to play in a small number of theaters for those lucky enough to live in major cities; now it can be seen at the same time online by serious film lovers who search in vain for great cinema at multiplexes in thousands of small towns; and it will eventually become a film that continues to stun anyone who scrolls past bland options on a Saturday night, anyone who comes across it deliberately or chance discovery, a great movie made widely available for anyone who has the curiosity to find it and the guts to stick with it.
Anyone who watched the first season of True Detective knows what this director can do. That alone should have motivated the studios to have faith in him. But fear set in and no one wanted touch it because they thought no one would watch it. Studio execs think we’re too busy wasting time on Facebook or watching The Biggest Loser to care. It’s all about money and where is the money in this?
There might not be money, but there is beauty. Beauty in watching a seriously talented artist deliver an uncompromising work of art. This film, in fact, is a moving poem. One scene to the next immerses us more deeply into the jungle, as we get to know the faces and the unwritten rules of this kind of warfare. Are we asked to care? Does it even matter? We have angry young white men in America who walk into churches and theaters to shoot innocent people in Bible study and on date night, and yet it’s these guys 5000 miles away that we cal barbarians? The truth about Americans is that they don’t care to look at the truth most of the time.
Idris Elba is the big name attached. He plays the commandant who “adopts” young Agu (the incredibly talented Abraham Atta). Fukunaga never lets you forget you are watching a child whose life was ripped apart when his family fled his village as rebels rode into town. The book the film is based on, and the press packet synopsis, calls the rebel army “unnamed,” meaning, there are so many of them cropping up out of poverty and desperation that naming them is almost pointless. Their crimes follow a familiar pattern. Young boys are forced to join armies, women and girls are routinely raped, all in the name of grabbing power in places crippled by progress, where many first-world corporate giants have robbed all the natural resources, leaving destitute people to fend for themselves, chasing scraps and getting what they can, while they can.
What is so remarkable about this film is how Fukunaga holds it all together so that, even at its two-hour plus running time, the film never drags. Each moment in young Agu’s life matters because he is evolving from an ordinary child into a monster. Because Atta is the right actor chosen to play the part, we feel a connection to young Agu. We never forget he’s a child because his eyes remain vulnerable, even as he’s aiming his weapon, even as he’s shooting bullets through a woman’s head, even as he’s made to bring the machete down on an innocent man’s skull. He’s made to do these things because that is what you do or else you’re one of the dead. He makes a friend and the two of them comfort each other after sexual assaults by the commandant (hinted at but never graphically shown). That relationship, though, like all good things in Agu’s life, is just another casualty.
So much of the film drifts by like a surreal dream — even though the narration is that of a child, we would not need to hear that narration to know we are witnessing the unthinkable from a child’s point of view. As director and cinematographer, Fukunaga does not need to translate or have his ideas interpreted through another collaborator. He films what he sees in his head. That somehow makes Beasts of No Nation feel wholly original, unlike anything that will play in a movie theater this year or the next ten years. It might not be right to call it entertainment, but it is art.
There was a time back in the 1980s and 1990s when Americans cared about child soldiers in Africa. The occasional celebrity cracks our distracted bubble and mentions it as some distant event where photos are taken and put on fan sites. Art can do more than that. It can rip away protective covers and embed itself in ways you can’t shake off. There is no website at the end of this film to tell us where to donate to help. There is no petition we can sign so that we can click a button and go on with our day. There is no invitation for us to care about anything beyond whether or not we can sync our iPhones with our new computers. It asks nothing from you except to look and see.
A great filmmaker builds worlds with their own language. They are so skillful you never doubt where they’re taking you even if it is so painful to watch it turns your stomach and makes you flinch. This film does not draw from anyone else’s playbook. It is a wholly original masterpiece that no person who claims to love film should pass up. Don’t not watch it because you think there is no way you can help young boys who are violated in so many different ways. We here in the first world have the luxury of getting depressed about it.
When the film at last comes to its closing moments, after we’ve seen what life is like from a child soldier’s point of view, Fukunaga hits us with the film’s true meaning. Agu asks himself whether he’ll ever be able to return to the world of children. Of playtime and ice cream cones, of teasing each other with flashlights, of finding love and friendship in places where something as basic as good drinking water is hard to get. Can he ever regain that purity of heart, that goodness each child inherits at birth? The truth is that he doesn’t yet know if he can after what he’s seen, after what he’s done, after all of the death that has become his everyday reality. What does he know? He once had a mother, a father, sisters and brothers. They loved him. All he knows is that he was once something closer to a real human being, kissed and carried, and maybe never forgotten.