Tough and Riveting: ‘Beasts of No Nation’

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.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

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 Nombre (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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024