Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Beasts Of No Nation (2015) - Movie Review


Well, after our last encounter with straight-to-NetFlix films, I can safely say that I am rather sceptical about this. Then again, that’s like if the first movie I ever saw at the cinema was bad and I immediately thought every film shown there was bad. Of course, given my record for pessimism in my reviews, that might actually be the case for all I know. Anyway, tangent, we have a film about African child soldiers to deal with. Grab a stiff drink, ‘cause I think we’re all gonna need it.

The plot: After his village and his family are lain waste by rebels, Agu (Abraham Attah) is brought into the fold of a child militia run by the Commandant (Idris Elba). Out of a thirst for revenge against the people who killed his loved ones, and as a means to secure foot and shelter for himself, Agu agrees to join the battalion. As his exposure to the horrors of the war increases, Agu begins to turn into something dangerous.

This is a film about child soldiers, and even for that subject matter this film is depressing. From the unfortunate circumstances that resulted in the death of his family, to his first meeting with the NDF to his action as part of the NDF, this film pulls no punches whatsoever. However, more so than any other war film I’ve seen this year, or probably ever, this film hits especially hard because not only is it shown through the actions of a child, it is shown through the eyes of a child. Abraham Attah is spellbinding as the focal character as, through his narration to God about his shame of his own actions, we see his absolutely soul-crushing transformation from an ordinary child into a Little Weapon. Probably the film’s definitive scene is that precise moment when Agu crosses that threshold and becomes the beast, fading through battlefield after battlefield with no real connection to the events or even himself. His body has become nothing but a tool, both for battle and for his commander’s satisfaction… yeah, that’s how dark this gets. What makes that transition feel even more tragic is because Elba does that good a job at portraying a charismatic commander, as well as a complete monster in his own right.

Something that’s definitely striking about the film is how the story feels tailored to be as non-specific as possible. We know that it’s set in Africa, but we’re never told explicitly where in Africa, and we know that Elba is playing the commander of this brigade of soldiers, but we aren’t told his name beyond his rank. As a result, the film makes the audience less attached to the specifics of the story and more to the events and the emotions felt during it. It tries to make this story more universal in a way. However, probably the most surprising way that this is conveyed is through the soundtrack. At the beginning, and in every few scenes after that, we hear young boys singing in Twi but it sounds closer to rapping. I want to call it “rapping” outright, but I don’t want my suburban white kid roots to mislead me this time round… but, if that is rapping, then that just adds to this intent. Rap’s earliest origins was as part of a vocal game played during the years of black slavery in the U.S., as a means of expression during a particularly dark time. Here, through what we hear from these kids, it gives a feeling of some form of convergent evolution that connects the African jungle and the urban jungle.

Since I just brought up slavery, I might as well try and justify why I like this film so much and yet I gave 12 Years A Slave such a hard time this year. It took me a while to really figure it out (or scramble to avoid being called a hypocrite, call it whatever you wish), but I think I’ve got it. In 12 Years A Slave, the cruelty that happened to Solomon was inflicted to him; he was simply a victim of a racist system that was designed to screw people like him over. Here, the cruelty that happens to Agu is inflicted by him; he becomes a perpetrator of the violence that lead him to the path he is on before too long. That more personal connection to the events, and portrayal of how much war has irrevocably changed him for the worst, is why this film honestly works better. There’s a scene near the end comprised of a single unbroken shot of Agu making his way from the trenches back to camp: He’s wading through mud, he passes by other soldier smoking ganja, he sees fallen comrades being lifted into mass graves; it is unsettling as hell to sit through. It is made so much worse because, even with everything that has happened to him, Agu still has the innocent thoughts of a child. It is because of all this that the film’s bulk strikes at the heart as well as it does, and also why the ending manages to affect the audience on the same level.

All in all, this is an incredibly depressing sit that earns every single salty tear it squeezes out of its audience. Its unrelenting depiction of war through the perspective of a child, bolstered by great performances from Attah and Elba et al., is engaging, frightening and even soothing when it desperately needs to be to create one of the most emotionally affecting films I’ve sat through all year. Checking this out is worth a NetFlix subscription on its own, far as I’m concerned.

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