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Venice: ‘Beasts of No Nation’ Takes a Young Boy into the Heart of Darkness (Review)

Venice: 'Beasts of No Nation' Takes a Young Boy into the Heart of Darkness (Review)

Cary Fukunaga’s eagerly anticipated adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel about the
forging of a child soldier is every bit as good as one might have hoped. It’s a
harrowing, heart-breaking and physically exhausting account of the loss of
innocence.

The fact that the experience of the boy on screen is
currently being replicated a quarter of a million times worldwide, at a
conservative estimate, gives the story a terrible currency. But it’s Fukunaga’s
storytelling chops, aided by what is arguably Idris Elba’s best performance on
film – better than his Mandela – that lend this message movie its indispensable
aura.

Iweala told the story of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy in
an unspecified West African country ravaged by civil war, who loses his family
and falls into the hands of a rebel army comprised entirely of children; Agu’s
transformation from kind-hearted boy into cold-blooded killer is tempered only
by the sense that he is, still, hanging onto his humanity by his fingertips.

Adapting the novel himself, and adding cameraman to his
usual duties, Fukunaga spares very little in bringing Agu’s nightmare to the
screen. But first audiences may be lulled into a false sense of security by a
prologue that you could almost call cute, as Agu and his beautifully bonded brothers
lark about their town, which is a UN buffer zone – the eye of the storm – in a
country at war. As the kids watch a football match through the empty frame of
their dad’s TV (heralding the child’s perspective that will dominate the film)
one thinks back to the flashback scenes of “City of God.” But look what
happened to those kids.

When the government forces decide they’ve had enough of the
buffer, all hell breaks loose, Agu’s family are variously made refugees or murdered,
and the boy flees alone into the bush. There he’s captured by the Native
Defence Forces, armed boys in strange, almost comic attire, who seem to have literally
gone native, led by the only man amongst them, the Commandant (Elba).

As soon as the British actor ambles into view in his shades
and beret, bare-chested with shells around his neck, oozing charisma, one
realizes that the film, though shocking, has been a little rote up to this
point. Elba gives it an altogether different edge. For a second the Commandant,
who talks of the boys as his family, almost persuades us that Agu is in safe
hands. But he’s no Mad Max, leading the lost children to salvation; rather, he’s
preparing them for the “transition” into warriors, into his “sleeping beast”
that will murder all before it.

Elba made his name of course as the drug dealer and killer Stringer
Bell on “The Wire.” Bell’s seductive swagger and power are on display here – at
one point the Commandant whips his child army into a such a frenzy that they capture a
town from the government forces, without even pulling his own gun out of its
holster. Yet this “father” abuses his children in all manner of ways. It’s a nuanced,
troubling performance – troubling, not least, because we derive so much
pleasure from watching a very human monster. And the sense of foreboding that
surrounds this self-made warlord grows ever more insistent, driven by Dan Romer’s
superb, synthesizer-based soundtrack.

It’s notable that Agu’s voice-over, so dominant in the film’s
early phase, diminishes as the child retreats from view, to be replaced by a
cold-blooded and casual killer. And as the NDF’s atrocities grow more frequent,
so Fukunaga’s vibrant, frequently handheld cinematography introduces moments of
hallucinatory horror – in one memorable scene the bush and all around it become
blood red, as the killer kids maraud in slow motion through the landscape. Despite
an entirely different milieu, there are moments here that feel rooted in the creepy
tone and dynamic set pieces of Fukunaga’s “True Detective.”

While countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone are
notorious for their use of child soldiers, the director shot in stable,
peaceful Ghana, where he also found young Attah. The boy has a watchful, easy screen
presence, and also a youthful integrity that leads us through Agu’s dark
journey without a trace of sentimentality. 

I’m slightly reminded of Luis Mandoki’s “Innocent Voices”
from 2004, which followed a Salvadorian boy fearful of turning 12 because that
is the age he will be pulled into the armed forces. Though that film was
disturbing, Mandoki spared his child protagonist from the transition that is
Agu’s fate. “Beasts of No Nation” is an altogether more severe and grueling experience, sparing neither the boy, nor the audience from its particular heart of darkness.

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