Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” is the most viscerally affecting war movie in recent memory. Based on a novel by Uzodinma Iweala, which I haven’t read, it focuses on guerrilla warfare in an unnamed African nation while tracing its impact on the civilian populace with ruthless and unflinching candor. Like Ichikawa’s “Fires On the Plain” or Bergman’s “Shame,” its outlook is both pitch-black and slyly humanistic: we stick with these people because we sense ourselves in them, and because the movie forces us to consider war not as an aberration, but as a sometimes unavoidable part of the human experience. During the first half of the picture Fukunaga’s darting camera and elastic, almost impressionistic time sense are employed to startlingly opposing effects: first to evoke a spirited sense of home, and then to show its rapid dissolution. (Fukunaga is responsible for the cinematography; Pete Beaudreau and Mikkel E.G. Nielsen handled the editing.) As the pubescent Agu (Abraham Attah) is separated from his family and absorbed into the ranks of a roving militarized band, we feel the sickening rush of the group’s masculine, death-hungry culture; it’s what keeps it moving through the jungle, destroying all in its path, while bolstering the bonds that unite its members in ways both disturbing and primeval. You understand, and almost sympathize with, Agu’s exultation in power — he’s feeling his oats, and executing his will, in a way (thankfully) not possible within the civilized confines of his village.
In light of the brutality on display, it may be difficult for some viewers to appreciate Fukunaga’s delving into rites and prerogatives reflective of the darker aspects of traditional maleness. But I think you have to respect his willingness to follow his subject where it leads him, and to resist the salve of sermonizing. Fukunaga knows that war is less likely to raise up its participants than to lower them to an equal baseness, and his avoidance of hopeful or noble messages seems to spring from a desire to resist trivializing his subject. Unfortunately, he can’t imagine, or perhaps he lacks the nerve to forge, a way out of the moral corner into which he paints himself. Having become demonic by taking part in evil, Agu is exorcized by that same evil, a progression that makes no sense in moral terms, and is dramatically unsatisfying. I spent the second half of the movie attempting to fix the source of Agu’s growing disaffection. We seem meant to understand that he’s been numbed by violence, and gradually re-civilized via reflection on his missing mother. But if my understanding is accurate, and Fukunaga wants us to see the civilizing instinct as innate, then why does Agu go bad in the first place? Here the movie invokes the abyss, then skips right out of it. If the kids in “Lord of the Flies” autonomously snapped out of their savagery, without the intercession of Daddy Civilization, would you buy it? That’s close to what happens when Agu gains a conscience and begins to reflect on his debased state in voice-over. At that point the movie loses all of its urgency: it trudges to a close.
As the band’s commandant, a leader and corrupter of children who is one part Fagin and two parts Joseph Kony, Idris Elba delivers a confident movie star performance. Elba’s charisma and presence (and good taste) are such that he effortlessly communicates the character’s sway: you accept that young men, dislodged from their communities, are drawn to his unscrupulous authority. Holding forth on the topics of war and loss, camaraderie and obedience, the commandant is eerily at ease, even affable. Elba’s hands ceaselessly work the air; he’s like a conjurer or a puppet master. And when he speaks his voice has a melodious warmth. He’s the warlord as seducer-poet.