In another life Cary Fukunaga could’ve been a nature documentarian. He possesses an innate ability to turn the natural world into an intrinsic part of the story he’s crafting, weaving the scenery seamlessly into tone without it distracting from the narrative at hand. His style feels like a more muscular Malick at times, bringing forth the beautiful fierceness of the landscape rather than a gentle poeticism.
It’s a look Fukunaga honed with True Detective, depicting the marshes and coastal plains of Southern Louisiana as one vast evil kingdom, buried secrets and impending doom lurking just behind every gnarled tree and vine-choked building. Yet he one-ups this sense of environmental dread in Beasts of No Nation, using the vibrant, suffocating jungle to underline the primal, untamed brutality depicted within. We are not so far removed from the natural order of things, he seems to be saying, that at any moment this primordial world can’t reach out and swallow us back up into its green uncaring maw.
This fragile line between civilization and the wilderness makes Beasts of No Nation both transfixing and almost unbearable to watch. Suffering is paramount, universal, the sole outcome of an unnamed nation ruled by capricious politicians using tribalism and propaganda to stoke the fires of perpetual chaos. Into this horror we see young Agu (Abraham Atta) forced to survive, orphaned after the grim realities of civil war invade his idyllic life. Agu is our conscience, our sole source of hope amid the anarchy surrounding him, so it’s with a soul-crushing inevitability that we accept his fall from grace. Taken in by the charismatic but bloodthirsty Commandant (Idris Elba) after government troops execute his father and brother, Agu sees the joy of his childhood stripped and replaced by hate and abuse, becoming voiceless fodder in a confusing, relentless guerilla war. He finds no escape from the atrocities of the struggle, required to take part in them as an act of self-preservation. He becomes innocence destroyed, a child made monstrous by necessity and naïveté.
Yet, somehow amid all this bleakness and grief, Fukunaga maintains the barest thread of hope, of resiliency. We see Agu do terrible things, yet we never give up on his chance of redemption; his youth is his chance at atonement, his unshakeable knowledge of the wrongness of his actions his lifeline to rehabilitation. This inability to abandon Agu has a great deal to do with Atta’s screen presence. Idris Elba’s getting all the awards talk, but Atta—thirteen(ish) at the time of filming—gives one of the most devastating, mesmerizing performances of the year. The way he changes his demeanor, his posture, hell, the way he simply interacts with people who haven’t seen combat, is astounding for an actor so young. You believe every bit of loss and horror that happens to Agu, find it nearly impossible to believe Atta isn’t reenacting his own life story.
Fortunately, Fukunaga avoids forcing a greater moral into the plot beyond a sliver of optimism towards the future. Agu doesn’t find grace; grace isn’t a factor in this world. But we’re allowed moments of reprieve, and a gorgeous final scene—coupled with Dan Romer’s ethereal, haunting score—hints that damnation is never a forgone conclusion. And perhaps this nuance marks Fukunaga’s craftiest move: Beasts of No Nation refrains from imposing an overzealous righteousness upon you, rather suggesting that man can be reclaimed from the wilderness that once stole him away.