Tough and Riveting: ‘Beasts of No Nation’

Idris Ebla Beasts of No Nation-680

To take us to a foreign land and immerse us in an African
culture we’ve never experienced is no small achievement in itself. In Beasts of No Nation director,
screenwriter and cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga goes even further, setting
the emotional stakes quite high for his hero, a “good boy” named Agu who is
separated from his family and daily routine—going to school, attending
church—and trained to be a brutal soldier. 

We’re never sure of the cause he’s fighting for, or why his
loved ones are slaughtered. All we know is that he winds up as part of a ragtag
rebel army of children led by a forceful Commandant, played by Idris Elba. Before
long, Agu is brainwashed into following the Commandant’s orders, no matter how
violent or horrifying they may be. Like it or not, this rebel battalion is his
new family and the Commandant his father figure. 

Beasts of No Nation-1-680

Young Abraham Attah is quite remarkable as Agu. Much of the
film is dependent on his expressive face, which dominates the screen, as he
endures one painful upheaval after another. Can the soldier capable of
murdering a stranger on command with a machete be the same playful boy we
encountered at the outset of the story? Under Fukunaga’s direction, Attah makes
every moment all too believable. The director’s dynamic, hand-held camerawork
puts us in the middle of every scene, experiencing each new turn of events
along with Agu.

Elba delivers a compelling
performance as the military leader who inspires both fear and respect from his
youthful soldiers. Whether he is truly following orders from his Supreme
Commander or making decisions based on his own mercurial ideas is an open-ended
question. But it’s clear that he has a special attachment to Agu and sees him—for
better or worse—as a surrogate son. 

Fukunaga adapted the novel by Uzodinma Iweala and carefully
avoids naming the country where the film takes place. In any event, it is sadly
representative of more than one African nation. The filmmaker proved himself
with his debut feature, the impassioned Sin
(which deserves to be better known), then tackled an effective
remake of Jane Eyre with Mia
Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender before directing the acclaimed first season
of True Detective. Now he adds
another feather to his cap with this riveting drama, which debuts in theaters
and on Netflix simultaneously. However you choose to see it, it’s well worth
watching—and will certainly be a prime subject of conversation as awards season
revs up.

Subscribe to our newsletter


Maltin tee on TeePublic


Maltin on Movies podcast


Past podcasts


Maltin On Movies Patreon


Leonard Maltin appearances and booking


April 2024