Beasts of No Nation is long on setting but short on plot

abraham attah beasts of no nation

I have been a fan of Cary Fukunaga’s since season one of True Detective.  As impressive as his now legendary six minute oner was, I found some other things he did – especially the mismatch between Matthew McConaughey’s narration and the action on screen in episode five – more interesting.  There is nothing uninteresting about Beasts of No Nation.  It’s well blocked, well framed, and well shot.  (While I did think it was a little ungenerous for True Detective writer Nick Pizzolatto to caricature Fukunaga as a director whose technical skills involve saying “we’ll fix that in post,” a recent Vogue article – sadly not available online – does feature him digitally shifting lightning in one scene.)

Fukunaga and his production team have clearly done their homework for this film.  The degree of familiarity the film has with modern Africa is commendable.  (I may have slightly more knowledge of this subject than the average viewer, as I recently spent a year studying modern African political and military history as part of a master’s degree, in addition to reading the book this film is based on as well as others like it.)  While other reviews have found fault with the exoticism of a naked fighter or the aesthetics of a drug-fueled battle, both have a non-fictional basis: Joshua Milton Blahy, more commonly known as “General Butt Naked,” was a Liberian warlord who fought only wearing sneakers, and the visuals in the battle scene (pictured above) are based on Richard Mosse’s series of IR photographs of fighters in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It’s too bad that’s where the detail stops.  Idris Elba and Abraham Attah are compelling, but they don’t have much to do.  Rather than use the setting as a backdrop for a more focused story, as Phoenix does with the Holocaust, or even as general atmosphere, as The 25th Hour does with 9/11, Beasts of No Nation is content to present a cursory run through of child soldiering.  In other words, if you’ve never heard of child soldiers in West Africa, then Beasts of No Nation is the movie for you.  If you have, you may find yourself asking what makes this version of the story worth watching.

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