In this hopefully regular slice of the Broken Cliché I will look to assess the handling of violence in films of interest. Today I explore violence in Cary Fukunaga’s Beast of No Nation. Some of this content will pass as SPOILERS. Be advised.
Fukunaga’s extremely low budget effort (6 million) has come and gone although it has garnered over 3 million views on Netflix which is great for this limited production. I did have my issues with this film and you can check out my review but there is some interest to be had in our director’s handling of violence here. Beasts of No Nation tells the story of a young boy, Agu (Abraham Attah) forced to become a child soldier as civil war engulfs him and his surroundings. First, his family is ripped apart as his mother and baby sister are forced to flee then the rest of his family is murdered by a militia with Agu escaping by the skin of his teeth.
Enter Idris Elba as The Commandant who manipulatively controls Abraham Attah and a slew of other child soldiers under in his battalion. Agu now becomes a surrogate of sorts for audiences as Fukunaga looks to explore this dysfunction of childhood and humanity found in the idea of the child soldier. I imagine most of them had stories towing the line of Agu’s past – at least in reality a ton of them do. There is a hole ripped through them by violence that inevitably filled by violence. The Commandant offers them an avenue for this pathological reprieve. He galvanizes their feelings of fear, pain and loss and gives them an outlet via machetes and Kalashnikovs.
Fukunaga largely approaches violence like a drug here not only in the way he handles the camera but in the effect it has on our central character. The Commandant’s men are addicted to the drug called violence. The soldiers look for it, crave it and appear lost without it. Agu first taste of this drug comes on the back of his involvement in his first ambush. Elba’s Commandant is keen to see his new protégé pop his cherry and presents him a groveling man and machete. There is close up of his face as we sense the internal conflict and hesitation within – “it’s a helluva thing killing a man”. He eventually garners his first kill hacking this man to death. It is telling that Agu’s first kill is not an enemy combatant but an engineering student fixing bridges. The more visceral moments of aggression are inflicted on innocents hinting at the age-old Darwinian ethos.
Agu is now hooked on this drug and the little boy we meet early on, who plays football with his friends and indulges a mischief streak, is no more. A lot of the scenes that follow are filmed with a manic intensity as Agu and his fellow soldiers look to satisfy their cravings. There is the terrific sequence as the close in on a village with a blood lost. We still lean towards Agu’s perspective as his surroundings change with the sky turning bleak grey and the natural foliage turning red. There is a surreal tinge to this sequence as a number of innocents are mowed down. Agu looks up to and walks past a mosque as he makes his way down a path strewn with bodies. We realise he may have found a new god, one that gives him the easement he requires.
You know how they say you should never get high on your own supply. Well, we see that in play with The Commandant. He pulls on the strings of his men, the children especially and riles them towards violence but he never really engages in acts of aggression himself. We barely see him with a weapon in hand. He is all up in Agu’s ear pushing him towards his first kill and riling up his battalion to war crimes but he cuts a craven figure by the time the film ends. He is more of a criminal than a warlord and he appears as mere galamsey operator by the denouement as audiences and Agu finally see right through him. Fukunaga’s efforts with violence here are geared towards projecting a portrait of eroded innocence. Agu is the canvas on which Fukunaga constructs this idea and he does a pretty good job here.
There is now peace around Agu and he finds himself in this boy’s home but, still towing the line of violence and drugs, he seems to be undergoing withdrawal symptoms as he tries to adapt to an environment free of the cynicism and violence of whence. The film still retains hope and nuance in him. He sits quietly between two boys who argue about going back to the “bush”. Agu opts to stay in this home and wants no part of his past life. It lives with him, haunts him. “I am knowing the sound of people screaming and the smell of dead bodies…” Agu calls himself a “beast” and a “devil” as the film winds down. This boy is no longer a baby but an “old man” as he puts it. It is to the film’s credit and Attah’s performance that we agree with him.