Beasts of No Nation – Telluride Review


By James Hancock  September 7th, 2015

For those of you like me who bemoaned the loss of director Cary Fukunaga on Season 2 of True Detective and raged in frustration when he parted ways with his adaptation of Stephen King’s It, you can now breathe a sigh of relief. Fukunaga has not been idle and returns to both the big screen and Netflix on October 16th with a powerhouse new movie, Beasts of No Nation. Based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, Fukunaga first adapted the book into a screenplay back in 2006 and has been trying to get it made ever since. The story follows a young boy named Agu in an unnamed country in West Africa which is in a state of total chaos and embroiled in civil war. When his father and brother are slaughtered before his eyes, Agu flees into the jungle where he is eventually taken in by the Commandant (played by Idris Elba) of a rebel faction and groomed to be one of many child soldiers serving in his battalion. What follows will fascinate and horrify viewers in equal measure. This is not an easy movie to watch but it would not surprise me in the least if this movie picks up quite a few nominations during award season, in particular for young Abraham Attah who over the course of this movie very quickly graduates from being a non-actor to a compelling performer.

Q&A w/ Critic Todd McCarthy, Idris Elba, Abraham Attah and director Cary Fukunaga at Telluride.

Telluride Q&A w/ Critic Todd McCarthy, Idris Elba, Abraham Attah and director Cary Fukunaga.

What is fascinating about the movie is watching how Agu makes the transition from his incredibly warm, nurturing family environment to becoming a ruthless, trained killer who would gladly give his life for his new surrogate father, Idris Elba aka the Commandant. Agu, like every other boy, is forced to endure a series of initiation rituals including a symbolic death and rebirth that is genuinely eerie to watch as well as being forced to kill an unarmed prisoner with a machete. As their battalion moves from town to town toward the capital, Agu first relishes the opportunity to avenge his family but soon finds himself committing atrocities even worse than those originally inflicted on his village. Elba’s character is nightmarishly charismatic making it somewhat easier to forgive the boys theirs crimes as Elba resorts to drugs and intense psychological conditioning to keep his soldiers under his thrall. What is so heartbreaking about the movie is watching those moments where Agu and his fellow soldiers are able for just a few seconds to go back to being boys again. Sadly these moments happen less and less frequently as the story progresses until Agu’s eyes are completely dead and devoid of any human compassion at all.

After the screening, we were treated to a fantastic Q&A hosted by film critic Todd McCarthy. Cary Fukunaga and Idris Elba (who served as a producer on the film) shared some fascinating stories about the making of the movie. The major challenge was finding a way to portray West Africa authentically in spite of the fact that there is almost no filmmaking infrastructure in that locale. The last western film to be shot in that location was Werner Herzog’s Cobra Verde in 1987. The crew essentially had to build their own mobile militia just to handle the logistics of making the movie leading to Elba often feeling as if they were shooting a documentary instead of a narrative film. He laughed that the cast and crew would salute his arrival to set as if he were actually the Commandant. One interesting side note, Elba was happy to admit that the marijuana his character smokes incessantly throughout the film was genuine. Due to our being in Colorado, he felt safe in making this confession. In spite of being a little shy, Abraham Attah also shared a funny story about the day where ‘a white man’ came to his school to audition boys for a new movie. The highlight of the Q&A was hearing Cary Fukunaga discuss how he went about adapting the source material and the challenges he faced directing the movie. Some of his cast had backgrounds similar to that of the character Agu and were capable of making an abrupt switch from smiling and laughing one moment to murderous intentions the next. When one cast member offended another, it was Cary Fukunaga who had to step in and convince the man playing Tripod (you’ll understand the name when you see the movie) not to kill his fellow cast member right then and there. I was already impressed with Fukunaga as a filmmaker but after hearing him speak it is clear that he is a man of prodigious intellect and talent. Beasts of No Nation is further proof that Fukunaga is one of the most interesting and ambitious young filmmakers working today and over time I hope the movie will be just one of many incredible films Fukunaga directs in a long and productive filmography.

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