Originally known for his first two films Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre, Cary Fukunaga was put on the map for most by his audacious work on the first season of HBO’s True Detective last year, unconventionally directing every episode. He got all-time worthy performances from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey and boasted a palpable bleak mood from his photography, earning an Emmy for the episode “Who Goes There” with that captivating long take. He could do whatever he wanted after that, and so, tip toeing past comfortable studio gigs that may or may not have landed on his desk, he ventured out to the African jungles with Idris Elba (with a budget of only $6 million) for the most stressful shoot since Apocalypse Now. Catching Malaria, filling in for an injured camera operator, and constantly rewriting the script due to the actors dropping out, the haphazard conditions shows on the film for better and for worse.
The first thing you’ll notice is how beautiful the film is. The stark landscapes of West Africa draw you in, and the color palette for the film is quite something. Director and cinematographer Cary Fukunaga makes sure you remember the reality of this not-so-fictional story, paralleling Agu’s family life and how his world was flipped upside down when he joined a group of mercenary fighters. Initially, Agu has no choice and uses them as an escape and a way to reunite with his mother, but the ruthless commandant (Elba) changes him.
When the violence does break out, it’s brutal and harrowing. Young actor Abraham Attah is ferocious yet sympathetic, and he brings these battle sequences down to earth. The creative risks that Fukunaga takes with these sequences might come across as pandering, yet they make sense cinematically and come across as action poetry. There’s a certain lyricism to the war torn villages and jungles of the continent, and it’s beautiful and unforgettable.
There isn’t much dialogue in the film, but when there is it’s brilliant. The unnamed commandant’s ideology becomes clearer as the film goes on, and it reaches a disturbing peak. Fukunaga contrasts him with the initially innocent Agu and the two are at odds yet retain respect for one another. There are times when Agu could simply point a gun at the commandant and be done with it, but there’s a humanity to the film that respects all lives. War isn’t pretty, and Beasts of No Nation knows that. Yet this risky piece of entertainment remembers to be a film first and everything else second. The result is a rhythmic work of art with one of the best young performances I’ve seen.
Fukunaga’s cinematography is quite good, not boasting the same tricks as True Detective, but also clearly battling against the elements. It certainly has atmosphere. The style favours ambient music over montages of the war scenes and while that makes it flow together it also means that its surprises fall by the periphery. I can imagine that this will play well on Netflix, granted you give it full attention on a big HD television.
I imagine that it will garner a divided reaction, with some finding it too hard to bare through the whole thing, but I can’t imagine it getting much Oscar traction based on passion alone. It will be a pleasant and worthy surprise if it does score any nominations. At least an admirable effort that will be being remembered as one of the most notable war films of this decade.
Beasts of No Nation gets a 9.1/10.