Thursday, October 1, 2015

'Beasts of No Nation' (2015) directed by Cary Fukunaga (London Film Festival 2015)

Beasts of No Nation spends two hours showing us the physical and moral degradation of an innocent child. It's violent, politically uncomfortable and deeply disturbing cinema that goes places most studios wouldn't. Despite this, it's also a downright beautiful, exciting and thematically seductive story that reels you in and spits you out.

Set in an unnamed African nation, we find ourselves in just another day in an anonymous every-war. A vaguely defined government battles against even more fuzzily defined guerrilla rebels. Caught in the 'buffer zone' is Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy in a respected local family. Refugees from the battlefield trickle through his village each day, his father having set aside land to temporarily house them. 

This oasis vanishes when soldiers arrive and indiscriminately massacre the terrified villagers. With Agu's family dead the terrified boy runs into the bush, where he's eventually captured by the otherwise un-named Commandant (Idris Elba). He's cruel, unhinged and sadistic, yet brims over with magnetic charisma, his battalion worshipping him as their collective father. Like a moth to a flame Agu is drawn to him, quickly becoming a murderous, drugged out child soldier bereft of conscience.

It makes for compelling viewing, largely because Fukunaga isn't afraid to portray the initial stages of Agu's transformation as romantic and exciting. This turns out to be a sly perversion of the Campbellian hero's journey: the orphaned child going on a quest under the tutelage of a wiser father figure and ending up transformed. Yet while the Campbellian hero saves the day and evolves into a wise, competent and fully-rounded adult, Agu ends up a hollow-eyed shell having achieved nothing.

That Fukunaga adheres so closely to these archetypes  while simultaneously inverting them screws with audience expectations. On reading a synopsis you'd expect to despise the Elba character - perhaps associating him with hazy memories of Kony 2012. Yet despite all the moral and physical horrors his character wreaks, Elba imbues the role with so much raw charisma that we can't help but find ourselves in thrall to him. It sounds sick, but you can understand why people would follow his orders and abandon their conscience.

Elba's performance is elevated by woozily psychedelic cinematography that turns the warzone into a hyper-real, oversaturated dreamworld. This (in combination with intentionally disorientating editing) conveys the effect of the amphetamines and cannabis that the soldiers constantly take. It's a suffocating bad trip, bullets whizzing past the camera, screams, grass distorted to deep reds and constant random acts of background brutality. This is all scored by an excellent synth-led score by Dan Romer and results in a kind of cinematic sensory overload. 

There's more than a sprinkling of Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line here, especially during Abu's monotone, philosophic voice-over. But it doesn't feel much like Fukunaga is ripping off Malick so much as he's playing with the same tool-set; deconstructing the imagery and emotions of war movies to understand what's going on in their character's heads. This psychological focus echoes Fukunaga's work on True Detective, which also has as much time for the protagonist's psychology as it does the narrative.

None of this would work without a rock-solid central performance, something Abraham Attah more than delivers. I don't know who discovered this young actor, but they deserve some kind of award for unearthing new talent. He's brilliant from minute one, as credible as a bright-eyed mischievous child as he is a burnt out AK-47 wielding psychopath. As good as Elba is (i.e. really good), his performance largely works because we can sense the awe in Attah's face when the two interact.

Beasts is the first film acquired for distribution by Netflix and seeing their logo projected across a cinema screen is a slightly surreal experience. Yet if Beasts is anything to go by the company is going to shake things up a bit. It's a depressing thing to note, but the fact that the film features no white characters (even in incidental roles) would probably make it untouchable by major studios. But Netflix, swimming in cash and with a pre-paid subscription audience, can afford to take 'risks'.

And thank god they did, because Beasts of No Nation is a damn fine piece of cinema. From the sound design, the costuming, the editing, set design and location scouting everything is top notch. It feels like the first proper shoe-in for a boatload of award nominations, particularly for Elba and Attah's performances. Best of all, it's going to be streaming to all Netflix subscribers in a couple of weeks. It's a must watch.


Beasts of No Nation is available for streaming (and released in Curzon cinemas) on 16 October 2015 

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