Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.
As much as I’d like to give this film a perfect score, I just don’t feel that I can. And that drives me crazy. I mean, on the surface, this film has everything I’m looking for–an engaging narrative, realistic characters, stellar performances, gorgeous cinematography and a beautiful color scheme. Not only that, it stars an entirely non-White cast, and was written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, a fellow Asian American filmmaker and NYU Tisch alumni. Everything I need is present in Beasts Of No Nation, so why aren’t I crazy about it?
Well, one reason could be the pacing. See, for those of you who don’t know, this movie I’m writing about, Beasts Of No Nation, tells the story of Agu, a young boy in an unnamed West African nation going through a Civil War, who, after his family is killed, becomes a child soldier. In this respect, it is not unlike the Oscar-nominated Political THriller, Blood Diamond. But, whereas Blood Diamond was primarily an action film, and therefore had quick pacing and high octane thrills, this movie takes its time, and in some places, lingers on scenes and images that aren’t entirely necessary. There are several, rather long, shots of characters playing soccer, playing tag, going to Church, sitting and dancing, and even of completely random things, like bugs on branches, and dripping faucets. I understand the necessity of building up atmosphere and ambiance, but come on! Move the plot forward! Have stuff happen! Blood Diamond has a running time of over 2 and a half hours, a good 10 minutes more than this movie, and yet, it doesn’t feel nearly as long as this. And you want to know why? Because stuff actually happens there! There aren’t any extraneous scenes of people riding in cars or watching the rain fall. Every cut and image in that film is necessary! I never realized how important pacing really was to the success of a picture until I saw Beasts Of No Nation.
Another possible reason why I’m not as crazy about this film as I probably should be is the ambiguity. What I mean by that is, we’re never told what country this is supposed to be, why the war is happening, or even what the moral center of the film is. Now, on some level, I can understand why Fukunaga probably did this. He probably wanted to tell a universal human story with a universal human center, and that doesn’t necessarily require specific details, like a national identity, or a historical backdrop. But, at the same time, if we’re not given a specific conflict or country to latch on to, we’re not left with any real reason to care. I mean, even in completely fictional movies about war, like Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings, we’re told where we are, what the conflict is, and who the different sides are. We’re given context. We’re given something to grab on to. We don’t have that here. We don’t know what place this is. We don’t know who the good guys and the bad guys are. All we know is that there’s a kid, some bad things happen to him, he becomes a soldier, and he kills lots of people. What’s the purpose of that? To tell us that war is bad? Uh, I hate to break it to you Cary, but I think everyone in the world already knows that. At least Blood Diamond wanted to educate us about a specific issue–the illegal diamond trade–and give us an insight into the specific problems faced by a specific country–Sierra Leone. The lack of specificity in Beasts Of No Nation was likely done to make the film’s story and themes more universal, but, in the end, only managed to alienate the audience from what was happening, and unintentionally contribute to the homogenization of African cultures in the Western mind.
But, with all that said, I did still enjoy this movie, and have decided to give it a 7 out of 10. Yeah, it drags in some places. Yeah, it’s ambiguity can be a bit off-putting. But, overall, I do still think Beasts Of No Nation is a strong piece of filmmaking that should be watched and admired. If you’re a fan of Mr Fukunaga’s work–True Detective, Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre–or are simply looking to watch a well-shot, well-acted movie, give this film a look. It’s streaming on Netflix right now, and playing in some theaters.