Cinema-Manaic: Beasts of No Nation (2015) Movie Review

Cesar: “Can you put the Bat down?”

Matoi: “Why should I? You laughed at the sight of dead kids watching this movie.”

Cesar: “So? No matter what subject matter a film tackle a bad movie is a bad movie.”

Matoi: “I still think you’re insane.”

Cesar: “Fine, but I rather not have my laptop be destroyed.”

Matoi: “Sure, so long you tell me why you think this is a bad movie without comparing it to other films that tackle the same issues.”

Cesar: “Seriously? Than how will I get across how uninspired the film is.”

Matoi: “You figure that out.”

Beasts of No Nation falls into a difficult category of films to dislike. It revolves around a relevant issue that affect the lives of young children, and going against it can give the misconception you don’t care about human life. I often find myself quoting the song “Do You Feel” by one man band Bryce Avary aka The Rocket Summer when in discussion on these matters. Beside lacking expert knowledge on such matters, I ask myself if the cause wants me to see those involved as people, or simply victims of a crime. The portrayal of such tragic events, and crimes is just as important as understanding the reasons that caused them in the first place. Without that, ignorance further grows….

Matoi: “Stay on topic Cesar”

Beasts of No Nation tells the “story” of Agu, a child soldier fighting in the civil war of an unnamed African country. Within the first act of the film the writing shows some immediate cracks in its crafting, and execution of a delicate story. For example, instead of establishing an average day, or week for Agu steadily throwing in politics removing more, and more aspects of the average life it establishes war torn nation is the norm in his life. The film immediately jumps into its politically unstable setting before bringing up any history to this unnamed country has. It gets explained briefly in two scenes, but the broad generalization of the details can be apply to anywhere. Being incapable to express the value the people place on the country, or the people living in it. Then there’s also the writing failing to make the unnamed country significant to Agu in a meaningful way. There’s more to someone home than being a place to live in, but the film says otherwise made evident by its execution on the story. By not setting up the foundation for the drama to stem from the film ultimately feels aimless.

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Commandant: “Graham knows we’re onto him, all right? And he’ll try, and kill as many as he can before we catch him, and if I terrify his wife to stop that happening. I can live with that”

Another aspect that crumbles because of the writing are the characters. Agu, despite being our main character, is not a defined person. He’s simply a ploy to do whatever the story commands of him. For example, in the first act Agu is shown to have a brother whom it’s easy to assume they have a good connection with one another. Agu brother is not treated as a person in the story which makes the weight of his character less significant. This wouldn’t be an issue if Agu displayed some sorrow over losing family members in his life, but does not which is apparent with his brother never coming to mind after the first act. The only time Agu is shown, or hinted at caring for his family is when he has to bid farewell to family members due to circumstances that prevented him from leaving the country. Then, there’s the other kids Agu interact with in the beginning of the film which if under good hands one of those kids would have also been with Agu in his journey. Sadly, this isn’t the case as Agu never seems to ponder much for his family, even if he loses a person close to him in front of his eyes the film does not allow Agu to display his emotions. Nor does Agu seem to care about the livelihood of his friends either at it is never brought up.

In its two hours, and 17 minutes run time it feels longer than it actually is. This is contributed to the uninspired formula the film chooses to tell its story. You have a kid whose innocence get taken away from him because of a war, they see families and friends dying as the war worsen, they befriend someone in the militia/rebel fighters that force them to fight, get noticed by the commander demanding more of the child besides fighting, the eventual downfall of the rebel fighter group, and finally the ending which either has the child dying for the cause, or struggling to settle back into society because of his experience. It’s a typical telling of the story minus engaging material that explores the psychology of it lead character. Another aspect that does not help is the cinematography gives away plot point when it lingers too long on something. However, the formula for kids drag into war stories start at a point where it shows the good life of the kids. This film avoids this aspect immediately throwing viewers into the politically violent nation. Afterwards, the child would be captured by a rebel leader, and this is where the kid would be forced to either choose to make a stand to hold true to what he/she believes, or do something that can damage them through adulthood. It also glances over this plot point as Agu simply becomes a fighter without protest which hinders the impact the story should have had.

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Commandant: “Chop em up boys! We got us dinner tonight!”

Then at some point in this story the child protagonist eventually has to come across a point where he is forced to kill somebody in front of a commanding officer. Agu does not show, nor expresses any hesitation when this pivotal moment happens. Giving the false impressions Agu didn’t apply any values to human life before the war which yes means despite saying he loves his friends, and family it’s simply for show instead of an ideal for the character. Now, not all films of this subject matters has the child killing someone to show how much the character changed from their normal life before being taken to war. In some cases, the kids would even protest doing such a thing resulting in either severe punishment, or deaths at the hands of the rebel leader. However, earlier in the film there was a shot that lingered on an unimportant event of a kid going into a shack with the commander. Since I know the plot beats of these kind of stories (particularly the uninspired ones) I expected the child to lose their innocence. This same shot also spelled out the outcome of the “the turning point” (as I refer to these of plot beats) before it happened. This particular moment between Agu, and the commander could have painted a harrowing image of Agu lost childhood, but cuts from it before showing anything remotely hinting at the action. If the viewer got to see Agu reaction it would have been more harrowing than simply implying it. Like mentioned in the past, if you only provide a tame version of an atrocity the sugarcoating of the crime is more damaging.

Also in these kind of films the importance of family is empathize either be it with the protagonist actual family, or the rebel fighters they fight with. In Beasts of No Nation it gets both aspects of this plot point wrong. Agu actual family is used in a manipulative way in the scenes they’re written. At the beginning, it hints that Agu, and his brother don’t always see eye to eye, but after one brief moment of anger they get along easily. Now imagine this sort of portrayal for the rest of Agu family only showing them in a good light. However, without Agu expressing his sadness of losing his family it creates a detachment. This would have been remedied if the rebel were treated as Agu new family, except it’s not. The rebel fighters only has two character one of whom Strika, a mute who get no development pass that trait so you can pretty much guess what his contribution is. Most insulting about Strika character is he was unneeded in the way he was used since the film does not glorified child soldiers even in their eyes so using Strika to deliver the “War is bad” message only serves to hammer in its point.

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I’m guessing this is how Netflix got a good performance from a child actor. Wonder if this technique will be common.

Matoi: “You still haven’t explained why you laughed during this film?”

Cesar: “Fine, but that was the fault of the editing.”

The editing in Beasts of No Nation is competent, though nothing outstanding about it. In general, there is nothing really to complain about the editing. There’s a moment in the film where the rebels, and Agu are cheering together as they take over a town. Up-roaring music also plays during the march as it shows the rebels relishing their victory before abruptly cutting to bodies of dead kids. This abrupt cut made me laugh because the music does not fade out, nor does the scene fade into showing the dead bodies of kids. It simply just cuts to the scene. Going from Agu celebrating on the streets with other gun wielding rebel fighters with up-roaring music to like a snap of a finger showing dead bodies is not good editing. Granted my suggestion of fading the music, and fading the scene out is plain, but is allot more appropriate in transitioning between the two tonally different scene. One is meant to be a dark celebration due to the context while the next moment is a cut back to reality. What it did was make me laugh when the movie is about a kid being forced to fight in a war.

Matoi: “Oh. I didn’t notice that while watching it.”

Cesar: “That’s okay. This is the reason Izanagi considers me the Devil when watching movies. I notice stuff that tend to go over his head.”

Matoi: “Keep going.”

Cesar: “Come on. I told you how a film about kids going to war made me laugh.”

Matoi: “You know you still have to explain why you think the movie is bad.”

Cesar: “Did you not listen to me? Whatever.”

By the end of the film it comes across empty. I wondered what was the point of it? Was it trying to say using children in warfare is bad? Well, of course it is Sergeant Obvious. That’s basically the equivalent of watching a film like Schindler’s List with the only thing it tells you is the Holocaust was bad. It is trying to be an exploration for the kids who participate in the war? To be blunt, it is not character study even in the minimal sense. It feels more exploitative using the images of little kids killing, or dead kids to make viewers care what from they’re suffering from and not because they’re people who lost their ways. Agu, our main character, simply accepts the new life as a combatant without protest making him appear as if family has no value to him.

The movie reveals more about Commandant (Idris Elba) leader of this rebellion than it does any of the children whom are the center of its focus. It demonstrates why so many rally behind Commandant, why the battles feel aimless under Commandant leadership, and why the Commandant lost his original purpose for fighting for Africa. Commandant has a motivation, has conflict, and reacts to it in a dynamic way expressing his distraught he can’t do anything for his country, or its people. However, Commandant is neither not the main character, nor the main focus despite the fact his subplot is written far better than the main story. Commandant feels like a struggling person because he expresses himself through he believes is right. This unknown nation, and its people mean something to him. Those strong emotions for his country, the people, and soldiers are not attributes found with Agu. For even when the violence seem aimless, and ordinary when itching close to the end how Agu dealt with the situation feels robotic in conveying emotions, and emotionless commenting about violence through the eyes of a child.

Matoi: “Well if the writing is as bad as you claim taking away the part you praised Idris Elba character. How come so many who’ve seen it are challenged by it?”

Cesar: “Images.”

Matoi: “I should break your laptop now.”

Cesar: “Wait! Some people are so close minded to real issues, and the dark nature of humanity they can’t phantom stuff like this as part of life. It’s part of human nature to be self centered. If possible we do it to ourself without thinking about it.”

Matoi: “So, you’re saying because we’re not expose to this sort of events people like it. That’s shallow of you.”

Cesar: “Well, it’s true for some people. Like it says in The Rocket Summer song “Do You Feel”. Why should I have to try to fix things I didn’t create or contrive? Do you feel the weight of the world singing sorrow, or to you is it just not real cause you got your own things? In the instance of Beasts of No Nation, it failed to make me care. Now can you move away from my laptop.”

Matoi: “Next time I’ll watch a movie with someone who isn’t as insensitive as you are.”

Cesar: “Well excuse me for hating a work of fiction.”

Matoi: “Wait, it’s not based on a true story?

Cesar: “Nope, just a novel.”

Matoi: “Oh, well, this is embarrassing. I’m going to leave.” [Matoi has exited the review]

Beasts of No Nation strengths are in its production aspects. Leading actor of the film is child actor Abraham Attah who was flawless in his portrayal. He gave his character more depth than the writing did. In his eyes, he gets across being a tortured soul with body motions that shows nervousness in the heat of danger. Subdue in his portrayal despite whatever context is given Abraham Attah balances the harrow nature of the film. Avoiding the pitfall of being too showy (at least for a child actor) opting for performing a character not simply being seen as a child actor.

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Idris Elba: I see, my Oscar is the distance.

Lastly from the cast is the fantastic Idris Elba. While he does get overshadowed by his younger co-star Attah. Elba performance is nothing that be taken away from. Through his mannerism he slowly transform into a lost soul when reaching the end of the film. Idris Elba managed to sneakily create a performance that gets across his subtle manipulation of his character. Much like with Attah, Elba performance is mostly subdue with the only time he riles up is when he is inspiring soldiers to fight. The supporting cast do well in their roles, but aren’t given big roles like with Attah, and Elba to make much of an impression. They unfortunately fall into thankless roles, but aren’t wooden as the actors put allot of effort into their performances.

Cary Fukunaga’s cinematography is quite good ambitious, and atmospheric in its goals. Optimizing various wide shots of locations to set up the vast landscape, using close ups to get personal in dramatic scenes, and keeping the camera on a single actor for a period of time to follow the chaos. A huge compliment also goes in Cary Fukunaga decision in using filters for a majority of the film to make the scenes appear more realistic. When it comes to violence he doesn’t compromise showing dead kids, or showing a kid kill people. He does not stylized his violence. Rather, makes it as grounded, and dirty as possible to display the rough nature of combat. Dan Romer (the film composers) creates a score that favors ambiance for a foreboding atmosphere. Mixing various ambiguous instruments, like a drum kit made out of stringed instruments, to create musical that oscillates between themes of innocence, confusion, and terror. Progressing naturally as it changes tone in the film. Given the film doesn’t incorporate montages of fighting it was the right direction to take the music in. While unnoticeable it serves it purpose well by not drawing attention itself, nor taking away from its usage.

In the end, Beasts of No Nation is a hollow film whose images evoke more emotion than the people it is about. Despite the fact it’s based on a sensitive subject matter it provided no reason for me to care. Commandt was the most developed, and engaging character even though I’m clearly meant to hate him for basically making who know how many young children, and teenagers fight in a cause resulting in large amount of deaths under his command. It’s a shame he (Commandant) shows a greater importance for everything that is occurring around him than the filmmaker do. Agu who is the main character didn’t need to understand politics to express how the war changed him, and the effect it had on everything he held important. Sadly, that does not become a focus since Agu expresses little value to everything that gets taken away from him. While well made the images are the only aspect that will trigger a reaction since they involve kids committing war acts. It’s a shame things like this happen, but when done in this manner it comes across as lip service rather than showing concern for those in the same position.

4/10

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