Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s acclaimed novel of the same name, is above all else a curatorial exercise, depicting the war that rips through an unnamed African nation as a series of meticulously crafted sensorial impressions. The camera, suggesting its own character, skulks through the film’s settings and regards the savagery that foists a young boy, Agu (Abraham Attah), on a seemingly unending journey toward destinations unknown with dubious astonishment. In the key of True Detective’s first season, the entirety of which was helmed by Fukunaga, the muck of war is presented as a sort of demo reel, a programmatic rollcall of unspeakable frights made lurid by their self-conscious presentation.
The film, then, is a stunt, though it coyly acknowledges itself as such. The story begins by peering at the place Agu and his friends call home through a hollowed-out television set. The boys lug the piece of junk around town, trying to sell it as “imagination TV.” Prospective buyers change the dial and, on cue, the boys act out situations from whatever genre of entertainment is requested. Finally, after amusingly lunging through the TV to show off its 3D capabilities, Agu appeals to a young soldier’s humanity, procuring for himself and his hungry friends a stack of meal boxes. It’s a telling scene, as it foreshadows the film’s own desire to wow us by any means possible.
From there, Beasts of No Nation proceeds as phantasmagoria, a catalogue of all the horrors that afflict the hapless Agu after he’s unable to escape his war-torn village. After his mother is driven off to supposed safety, and a telegraphed misunderstanding involving a “witch woman” leads to his brother and father’s death, the boy escapes into the jungle only to fall into the clutches of Idris Alba’s Commandant. This man, who lords over his mostly child army with cock-of-the-walk bluster, will become for Agu both a father substitute and an abuser of the most predictable sort. And for audiences, he’ll conveniently annotate his guerilla faction’s modus operandi with an uncomplicatedness that’s of a piece with Agu’s artificial narration.
This story is initially risible for setting itself in an unnamed country, feeding us generalized tidbits of war, about military coups, the involvement of foreign institutions, and the malaise that cloaks refugee camps, conflating cultural difference and advancing the belief that all wars, at the bottom, are the same. But at least one of Commandant’s rants, an illumination of the film’s title, rubs up uncomfortably against such reductiveness. This warlord might not call himself a maniac, but his undeniable mania is understood to rise almost sensibly from the fog of war—from the end result of sparring interests fracturing lands to such degrees that they become unrecognizable to its people. The violence he wields, then, suggests a metaphysical frisson, a grappling with the corporeal having been forcibly divorced from the self.
This, at least, is one way of excusing Fukunaga’s faux-objective aesthetic for how disconnected it feels from Agu’s point of view. Closer in spirit to Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men than Elem Klimov’s Come and See, which deployed a more subjective use of image and sound to convey the brutality of war on a boy’s psyche, Beasts of No Nation is one maximalist, long-take-dependent display of violence after another. At the scene of an ambush, a small theodolite is recovered and later used in a way that almost comically reinforces the impression of the film as a live-action first-person shooter. Later, in the heat of battle, the greens of the jungle take on pastel-like hues, an affectation that only the wildest stretch of the imagination would attribute to the side effects of the “gun juice” Agu takes to sniffing.
That one might be compelled to describe Beast of No Nation’s climax, a long take through a building that has the Commandant’s child soldiers, blitzed on drugs, shooting indiscriminately at targets while subjecting a woman and her daughter to unspeakable abuses, as a “tour de force” is instructive. Throughout the sequence, Fukunaga’s artistry registers less as psychological imprint than as a measure of his professional bona fides. When anguish is this choreographed, it distracts from—rather than reinforces—its narrative purpose. As such, when Agu’s pondering of “going back to doing child thing” is sentimentally answered by film’s end for both the character and audience, there’s a sense of him having been freed as much from the barbarity of war as from the emotionally detached force of Fukunaga’s pop aesthetics.