So I watched Beasts of No Nation….
I think the art of turning a powerful story into a powerful movie is one that is often overlooked. People think that you can simply take real-life events put them on screen and that will be enough to dazzle the audience. This does work well if you’re making a documentary but for a feature film you need to both add sparkle and remove dull moments to ensure entertainment. This film doesn’t do either and while it may be an extremely accurate depiction of real life, it isn’t an entertaining one.
Okay, basic plot: Agu (Abraham Attah) is a young boy who lives in a small village in Liberia. The country is in a state of civil war but the war has not reached Agu’s village and he leads the life of a typical child – playing around and getting in trouble. As the conflict worsens, the war creeps closer and closer to Agu’s village, eventually leading to a need for evacuation. As rebel and government soldiers approach, Agu is separted from his family and found by a band of rebel soldiers. The rebels recruit Agu into their ranks and train him as one of their own. The leader of the squadron of rebels – Commandant (Idris Elba) – takes a liking to Agu and specially watches over the boy’s transformation from carefree child to fearless killing machine.
This film was a chore to watch. It’s a socially-relevant film with a story worth knowing but it’s put together in such a boring way. The film starts off with a slow and steady pace, which I thought was excellent. It starts off introducing Agu and familiarises us with his normal life, which is essential because it stands in stark contrast to the life he leads as the film progresses. Unfortunately this slow and steady pace – which should have been shed at the beginning of the film’s second act – remains a stagnant feature up until its end. This movie is, in part, a war movie but you wouldn’t know that looking at it. It’s far too pedestrian and doesn’t showcase the brutality of war enough in my opinion.
The whole point of this movie is to show us how young boys are snatched from and robbed of their childhood by the horrors of war but we don’t see enough of these horrors. We see the transformation and end-result but not the catalysts that caused the reaction. Yes, seeing one horrific thing might be enough to change a man in real life but this is a movie. Sometimes you need that Hollywood overkill and sense of theatricality to produce an entertaining movie. Look at Blood Diamond, one of that film’s subplots is the main plot for this film. That subplot is infused with loads of entertainment because we only see the highlights of that particular story instead of a day-by-day account which can be more dull (as it is in Beasts of No Nation).
The thing I enjoyed most about this film was the acting. Both Abraham Attah and Idris Elba put in captivating performances. A major theme in this film is one of forced manhood and Attah does wonderfully well portraying the loss of childhood and innocence his character experiences. The quality of acting in this film is diluted by the dull situations and unremarkable moments that director and screenwriter – Cary Joji Fukunaga – decides to place our characters in. This film also has a very low sense of production value. The explosions and gunshots don’t feel larger than life or particularly menacing. Maybe that’s how actual gunfire and explosions look and feel but, once again, this is a movie! Please dazzle me!
Overall, Beasts of No Nation struggles to embrace its identity. It feels like a documentary masquerading as a feature film but somehow fails to deliver on either front. It’s a story we should know but not one that’s well told, just go watch Blood Diamond instead. 5/10