Simplicity in fiction is a virtue. The greatest novels and films have premises that can be aptly captured in terse statements: Leopold Bloom goes about his day; Charles Foster Kane searches for love; Captain Ahab hunts a whale; a new generation takes over a mafia family. While these stories are rich in detail, what ultimately makes them work is that every piece adds up to a single, great sum that is at once simple and powerful. Every scene contributes to the whole while standing alone as an interesting or powerful moment. Like life itself, these pieces of fiction break up a single, unending story into bitesized chunks of action like the days in a calendar year. In Beasts of No Nation, writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga tells a simple story through a series of traumatic moments, each of which builds on the last to create a soul-wrenching and thought-provoking whole.
Fukunaga is a young director with very few projects under his belt. He wrote and directed Sin Nombre in 2009, worked as a hired hand directing an adaptation of Jane Eyre two years later, and made his breakthrough three years after that when he directed the entire first season of True Detective. Beasts of No Nation is only his fourth major directorial project, and his second screenplay. Yet even with such a paucity of experience he has mastered a style and tone that makes many more experienced directors look amateurish. His beautifully composed landscape shots are intercut with lengthy long takes that follow his protagonists through winding mazes of violence and depravity. His color palettes are as striking as they are simple. And his ability to squeeze emotion from his actors is already nearly-legendary (I believe that he’s as responsible for McConaughey’s incredible performance in the first season of True Detective as the actor himself).
Fukunaga has also established a set of themes across his limited oeuvre. Sin Nombre and Beasts of No Nation both deal with violent, forced loss of innocence as well as the ways in which political instability affects the bottom rungs of society (while True Detective echoed some of these themes, Fukunaga did not write the screenplay, so it is difficult to discern his influence on that season’s content). In both of his auteur films, Fukunaga is primarily interested in the journey taken by children in impoverished, unstable nations from the pureness of childhood to the muddied morality of adulthood. His child protagonists fall from a state of blissful ignorance to one of traumatized knowing by degrees: they are forced from their homes by violence, parents are killed before their eyes, and ultimately they must fend for themselves in order to survive. These stories are almost the opposite of the traditional bildungsroman, in that by the end of their journeys, Fukunaga’s protagonists seem almost less human than they were when they began.
The story that Beasts of No Nation tells is a simple one. Set in a nameless African nation, the film follows Agu, a young village boy played by first time actor Abraham Attah, as he is driven from his home and press-ganged into service under a rebel leader referred to only as Commandant, who is portrayed by Idris Elba, the film’s only big name actor. The movie is almost entirely unconcerned with the politics of the situation: every faction has a name that is reduced to three letters, UN forces are seen only twice in the film, once when a caravan passes by the rebels and again, briefly, near the film’s end, and Commandant’s power struggle with his superior is couched as personal terms rather than political ones.
Beasts of No Nation eschews politics in favor of a purely human story. Through the eyes of innocent Agu, the audience is shown the horrors of a civil war in which no one, not even law-abiding citizens discovered protecting their property by their own government’s forces, is safe. He learns about the realities of war through a series of traumatic events beginning with his mother and sisters fleeing their village and culminating with a protracted, entrenched battle during which stores of food and ammunition dwindle to nothing. The transformation is methodical: after witnessing his father and brother being gunned down by government troops, Agu flees into the jungle and is discovered by Commandant’s forces, a motley crew of children and teenagers dressed in oversized fatigues and handmade tunics who are armed with AK-47s and machetes. Commandant takes an immediate liking to Agu, and Agu, like Strika and the rest of the young boys who make up a large portion of Commandant’s NDF battalion, falls under his charismatic sway.
Agu is then trained to be a soldier, indoctrinated into the NDF by means of a mystical ceremony, and taken along on his first combat mission. The film builds slowly to the moment when Commandant hands Agu a machete and orders him to execute one of the survivors, a scene which serves as the fulcrum on which the film turns. By the time Agu has finished cutting the prisoner to pieces, he is as much a victim of the civil war as his murdered family members. The rest of the film is a slow descent into the bowels of human cruelty, including heavily implied pedophelia, on-screen rape and murder of civilians, betrayal in the name of retaining power, and, ultimately, mutiny for the sake of survival. By the time Agu is, almost miraculously, taken to a UN-sponsored camp for former child soldiers, we know that he cannot return to his former state of innocence, cannot unsee the things he has seen or undo the deeds he has done. His life may have been spared, but his soul is mutilated.
The film's message is powerful without being moralizing or editorialized. There is no cutting indictment of UN observers or the inhumanity of international inaction to be found here. All we see is Agu, a child born in a war-torn nation, whose humanity is eradicated by circumstance. It is the ultimate tragedy, a tale where our protagonist has no choice but to accede to the will of those around him or die, and by surviving he only furthers the suffering of others. The film is a beautiful, bleak testament to man’s inhumanity to man.
To say that Beasts of No Nation is a downer would be an understatement. The film feels like a punch to the soul. The opening scenes in which Agu and his friends play with a screenless television set that he refers to as an “imagination TV” establish a familiar childhood innocence that is systematically dismantled over the course of the two hours that follow. Each new depravity tears away a small piece of Agu’s childhood, until he is rendered (in his own words) as something more beast than man, a war criminal in a child’s body. Fukunaga makes the audience feel this trauma, sinks us into it like a stone falling into murky waters, and, by the film’s end, we, like Agu, know that there is no going back.