Short Takes: Beasts of No Nation

(Cary Fukunaga, U.S., 2015)

With a season of True Detective and its perverse world under his belt, Cary Fukunaga takes up the dystopian backcountry of Beasts of No Nation, which is freely adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s acclaimed 2005 novel about being a child soldier. Set in an unspecified African nation ravaged by rebels, Fukunaga’s film conveys the physical and moral pandemonium of the civil war, but the hard-hitting material is left to wither away.

Agu (newcomer Abraham Atta) is press-ganged into joining an army of guerrilla soldiers after his family is separated and killed during an invasion that rolls into their formerly protected zone. The Commandant (Idris Elba, less than riveting) soon forces Agu to commit horrific violence; the film’s defining image is probably Atta’s stricken face when he is ordered to murder a truck driver after an ambush by slicing his head open. Later, the closest he can come to retaining a sense of humanity is through shooting a woman while she is being raped.

The drama of this waking nightmare shifts gears a little as the Commandant starts losing power amid the political machinations of his movement’s leader, but Elba is too internalized a performer here to make his presence fully felt. With the collapse of the guerrilla effort, the lushly shot film enters a kind of narrative freefall, but that might ultimately be true to Agu’s mental state and the chaos of conflict.