Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

09 November 2015

Beasts of No Nation

Clearly one of the best films of the year so far is Cary Joji Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation.

It is true that I generally find it difficult to find a lot of words when I am talking about a movie that I simply love without almost any reservation, but I am holed up in the Portland airport waiting for a red-eye back to Central Florida from the ASTR conference, and I am way too tired to read. In other words, forgive me if this post is out of control; know that I have slept very little the last few days and won't get to sleep for another large number of hours.

Beasts of No Nation is a film about child soldiers, better even than 2013's War Witch. This is a film mostly in English and it is upsetting a lot of people because it is being released on Netflix simultaneously with its (Academy-qualifying) theatrical release. Distributors can say whatever they like about this, however. It will not alter the fact that this is a superb film.

If War Witch is Beasts of No Nation's most obvious recent cinematic reference point, if you ask me the film's debts are primarily to the ecologically minded utter genius filmmaker Terrence Malick. Malick's style isn't copied here – that would be profoundly unfair – but many of Fukunaga's questions about the world are the same. Like Malick, Fukunaga is fundamentally interested in the natural world that violence destroys and the ways that adults have powerful effects on children.

I am evoking Malick, too, because Fukunaga uses (but does not overuse, as some of Malick's acolytes do) a voiceover technique, where the film's main character articulates to us the reasons he has made the decisions he's made and the ways he deals with the psychic wounds of having done what he has been forced to do. This allows Fukunaga (who also wrote the screenplay) to describe the wounds experienced by a character while at the same time turning his camera on the jungle or on plant- or animal life.

Both filmmakers also present the violence in their films in fundamentally ethical ways, treating acts of bloodshed with horror and surprising the audience with the viciousness exhibited by their characters. Fukunaga doesn't let us be sentimental about violence without then following sentiment with ruin, with terrifying details that shock us out of our tendency only to mobilize the default emotions of pity or fear. (I guess I shouldn't speak for all of us, but I am convinced that this is how these things work so I'm just going to keep talking.) Sequences of excessive violence treated with a truly horrifying perspective have the power to unsettle us deeply, so that once we move past pity or shallow sentimentality, we can move into an area where we no longer feel like we understand this violence's limits. What I think this refusal to allow us to see violence's limits does is transmit to us a deep feeling that we no longer understand what humans are capable of doing. It becomes clear – we know in our bodies – that there are worse things than the director has allowed us to see. We know we have not understood. Beasts of No Nation does not let us rest in the complacency of believing we "get" it. The limit Fukunaga's film makes clear is not the limit of the violence of child soldiery but the limit of our ability to think it.

It is this kind of superb moviemaking for which Fukunaga has come to be recognized. Think about some of the sequences in True Detective's first season; there were entire sections of that show when my jaw was in a permanently dropped position.

Mr. Attah
It goes without saying that the film's photography is breathtakingly detailed and exquisite. Fukunaga was his own DP, and the film's cinematography is precisely what we have come to expect from his camera: images worthy of Malick himself. His camera, like the master's, lingers lovingly on the land, treats with beauty and respect the bodies that have been destroyed, refuses the pleasure that audiences desire when they watch violence. And he has set the film in the most gorgeous locations. Characters slog through trenches of bright red clay, the sun on the ocean serves the function of allowing the film finally to breathe near its end, and the banal, artificial lighting of the war rooms and bunkers allow the audience to appreciate beauty where the film wishes us to do so, and feel constrained and even slightly nauseous when such a feeling is merited.

I must, of course, also tell you that the acting is excellent. Abraham Attah, a fourteen year old Ghanaian actor, is absolutely riveting as the lead character, Agu. And Idris Elba brings extraordinary depth to this terrific villain. His performance is so extraordinarily brave that the film, almost entirely through Elba's performance, is able to address the tensions of desire that exist between the exploiters and the exploited in this situation of child soldiery. I am using only the word desire (without qualification) here on purpose. What becomes clear throughout the film is a kind of longing for youth, for acolytes, for sexual subjectivity, for mastery, that comprises the exploitation of child soldiers. It is a harrowing insight from what is, finally, a brilliant film, absolutely not to be missed.