'Beasts of No Nation': Venice Review

Grim, grueling and gripping. 

Netflix's first original feature film, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, stars Idris Elba as a warlord who recruits an army of child soldiers in an unspecified African country.

One of the many horrors of the modern world, that of child soldiers being coerced into violent combat roles by African warlords, is compellingly and convincingly dramatized in Cary Joji Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation. The writer-director-cinematographer's two previous features also dealt with brutalizing rites of passage suffered by young people — Central Americans making their way through Mexico to the U.S. border in Sin Nombre, a 19th century English orphan girl's harsh life in Jane Eyre — but Beasts rates as the most disturbing of the three because of the way the pre-pubescent boy at its center is forced to become a ruthless killer. After its trifecta debut at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals, Netflix's first original feature film will bow theatrically in Landmark theaters in the U.S. via the independent distributor Bleecker Street on October 16, the same day it debuts world-wide on Netflix.

Like the acclaimed 2005 debut novel of the same name by Nigerian-American writer Uzodinma Iweala on which it is based, the film plays out its grim story in an unnamed country, as rebels without a known cause or affiliation ruthlessly attack the general populace, as well as government forces when they find them, on behalf of a Supreme Commander. No ideology is brandished, no ideals are espoused; it's just a constant life of warfare and meager rations and no sense that, once victory is achieved, life will be much different than it was before.

The significant decision not to identify a particular country, ideology or religion cuts two ways. Favoring the general over the specific always removes a certain urgency to a story such as this and also encourages guessing over who and what the tale is supposed to represent (there is no doubt that Iweala's novel is, by implication, about Nigeria). But the sad truth is that a narrative like this could credibly be set in any number of post-colonial nations, and getting bogged down in what actually happened in this or that country could sap the tale of its penetrating application to many locales.

"I'm a good boy from a good family," says little Agu (Abraham Attah), and his village life is briefly sketched as one of fun and games. His father is a teacher, and he and his older brother attend a proper school and Christian church. All of a sudden, however, refugees start filing through, followed by "rebels" who mow down local "spies" indiscriminately, including Agu's father and brother. In a flash, his family is no more, and Agu retreats into the bush for dear life.

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In short order, the boy is captured and has no choice but to become part of a new family, a ragtag collection of other boys and young men led by the Commandant (Idris Elba), who leads what is only described as an anti-government force. They have no uniforms and little to eat but do possess a huge supply of arms, and when the group successfully ambushes an enemy caravan, the Commandant initiates Agu by forcing him to execute a prisoner with a machete. It's a dreadful sight.

The Commandant is an imposing, charismatic figure, and scary not only for his fearsome power but for his unreliability. The man could easily have been played as yet another strutting aspiring dictator who lucked into a position where he can lord it over others. But Elba gradually reveals the guy as a far more complicated and seriously damaged man. More often than not, he's smoking something that puts him in an altered state, and many of his dictates seem entirely arbitrary. He stews and sulks and is short on the sorts of inspiring words self-styled leaders often spew. He's probably a depressive and it's implied that he demands sexual favors from the younger boys, including Agu. But he keeps a sharp eye on things all the same, pushes the guys hard and keeps them in line. He cuts a rough, erratic but commanding profile and is an automatic father figure to the boys and young men who, with their guns and growing numbers, suddenly have power when shortly before they had none.

One of the great virtues of youth is adaptability, and with all that has just happened to him Agu quickly learns to fit in. Spells of inactivity are suddenly broken by brutal action, as the Commandant leads successful raids on villages, where success is measured by the number of innocent civilians that are massacred. Kids even kill other kids, and Agu is taught any number of horrible tricks, like putting grenades in prisoners' mouth and waiting to see what happens.

From all appearances, the rebels' war is going well, with the Commandant's forces rolling from town to town and adding more troops as they go. For his part, Agu has formed an attachment with a silent boy soldier named Strika (the memorably named Emmanuel 'King Kong' Nii Adom Quaye), and the youngsters, along with the Commandant, expect great things when they triumphantly arrive at the big city to join up with the forces of the Supreme Leader.

What happens from here on is surprising for the Commandant, demoralizing about Africa and, if not optimistic, at least open where Agu is concerned. There's no analysis or even suggestion as to why things have reached this dire point, no historical or political frame through which to regard it, no attempts at explanation or philosophical perspectives concerning human nature. The necessity of circumstances dictates everything anyone does here and you can only react with varying degrees of outrage, anger, disgust, pity, empathy and, if you're a blind optimist, hope for something better.

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One of the most impressive things about Beasts is that it was able to be made at all, and with such verisimilitude. Shot mostly outdoors in Ghana, the action moves around a great deal and there are several large-scale scenes of troops moving into ever-bigger towns, skirmishes, battles and mass evacuations that obviously presented major logistical challenges. Given the country's lack of much filmmaking infrastructure or a history of hosting big international productions, what's ended up onscreen is very impressive, and Fukunaga's camerawork is — as in his earlier films — lustrous and alert without falling back onto mere hand-held exigencies.

Central to the film's power and success are the two lead performances. How a child actor could be coached to reveal and project the enormous range of reactions and emotions required for the role of Agu is practically unimaginable, but Attah is persuasive and true and constantly interesting to watch as a boy forced to endure extremes of experience to be wished on no one. The film would not have been worth making without a capable kid at its center, and the director found him.

Starting out with what could have been a cliched figure of a charismatic egotist lording over a bunch of helpless youngsters, Elba keeps revealing more and more layers of his troubled character, to the point where the Commandant begins to assume Shakespearean proportions as a Macbeth-like figure who may not really have what it takes to be a completely successful and enduring despot. The actor keeps pushing his characterization further and further to the rather surprising end, never taking the easy way.

Production: Red Crown, Primary Productions, Parliament of Owels

Cast: Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Jude Akuwudike, Emmanuel 'King Kong' Nii Adom Quaye

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Screenwriter: Cary Joji Fukunaga, based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala

Producers: Amy Kaufman, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Daniella Taplin Lundberg, Riva Marker, Daniel Crown, Idris Elba

Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan  King, Bill Benenson, Laura Bickford, Fiona Druckenmiller, Jamal Daniel, Donna Gigliotti, Ted Sarandos, Pauline Fischer, Sarah Bowen, Elizabeth Koch, Kristina Kendall, Nnamdi Asomugha, Elika Portnoy, Todd Courtney, Mark Holder, Peter Pastorelli, Uzodinma Iweala, Tommee May

Director of photography: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Production designer: Inbal Weinberg

Costume designer: Jenny Eagan

Editors: Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, Pete Beaudreau

Music: Dan Romer

137 minutes