Cary Joji Fukunaga’s child soldier epic marks another vital collaboration between Criterion and Netflix
Beasts of No Nation follows young Agu (Abraham Attah) as his life in an unnamed West African country is reduced to ruins in the wake of a brutal civil war. His mother and two youngest siblings escape to the capital city in a taxi-turned-sardine-can, packed to the brim with paying refugees and piled sky-high with meager belongings; Agu’s father, brother, grandfather, and best friend are all slaughtered as the Government-backed National Reformation Council (NRC) seeks out enemy spies. Agu himself escapes into the wilds of the jungle, where he immediately crosses the path of a band of unrelenting child soldiers allied with the rebel National Defense Force (NDF). Their party is led by the charismatic, commanding, and cruel Commandant (Idris Elba) who decides to take Agu under his wing. But such salvation comes at a crushing cost as Agu is initiated into the life of a child soldier, where taking others’ lives will become an all-too-regular part of Agu’s own.
Cary Joji Fukunaga had felt compelled to tell the stories of African child soldiers since his short film days as an NYU student, but hadn’t found the right inspiration until he’d been referred Uzodinma Iweala’s debut novel. Itself a synthesized re-telling of various West African conflicts and testimonies by former youths forced to kill for a conflict that had torn their childhoods apart, Beasts of No Nation found hard-earned truth in sifting through and blending multiple perspectives. Fukunaga’s film takes a similar approach, seeking to depict a far more personal view of life-changing conflicts that are often themselves distilled into “ABCD acronyms” for 5-minute Western news stories.
The result is a remarkable and effective experience, one that doesn’t fall into either camp of the child soldier cinematic canon. Beasts does have brief hallucinatory experiences, drenched in red-and-blue infrared, but doesn’t become a waking dreamscape like Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. Nor is Fukunaga’s film, for all of its brutality and grueling moral choices, buried in soul-crushing realism like Elem Klimov’s Come and See. Its lack of cultural specificity becomes its own point. The sole exposition of the conflict comes in fractured radio broadcasts, along with the presence of Nigerian ECOMOG soldiers and UN Peacekeepers, so we must rely on Agu and his experiences to make sense of an increasingly senseless world. The film isn’t wholly defined by its predominant subject matter, either: Fukunaga’s first act is set in the uneasy calm of peacetime, and while the storm clouds of war brood on the horizon, we see Agu as a child first and foremost. We see Agu scheme with his friends and brothers for fun as much as for money, and we see how the decisions Agu and his family make — both for their day to day lives, as well as in conflicts rooted in far more generational concerns — inform the gripping, high-stakes choices they must confront when war finally comes to their doorstep.
This way, viewers never lose sight of the person Agu is the more he is forced to become an identity-less pawn of war. Whether he’s fleeing from an army, wielding a machete into someone’s skull, consoling a silent friend, or rampaging through a government building, Agu is a child first and a soldier second. It’s an important distinction, one Agu himself is terrified others might lose of him once the conflict reaches its end. It recalls the film’s beginning, as Fukunaga’s camera pulls out from a hollow TV into the vibrant world of Agu’s village, where Agu peddles the TV to anyone who’s willing to buy it as he and his friends dance in the confines of their “imagination TV.” The world is far more expansive than what the screen defines it to be, yet is a perspective we take for granted. Conversely, by limiting our perspective to Agu’s for the duration of Beasts of No Nation, Fukunaga roots us in an expansive worldview that has in the past been reduced or ignored for its horrors and overwhelming moral ambiguity. This is a world where victims become perpetrators, no matter one’s age, and every evil is a bitterly necessary one.
What Fukunaga points his criticism towards are the origins of the circumstances that place these children in conflict. Elba’s Commandant is a ruler whose personality is infectious. His speeches hypnotize all under his command and force his troops to re-contextualize their individual suffering under a nationalized worldview driven by cultural and societal vengeance. As such, the battalion becomes a brotherhood, and each singular act of cruelty becomes something immediately justifiable. But those who pull the strings know far better–using every human being at their disposal to gain meager advantages in an ultimate control over natural resources or inter-governmental promotions. There’s even a brief moment where the interim leader of the country delays meeting Elba’s Commandant in favor of a foreign businessman–suggesting bigger powers at work who are taking advantage of this war-wracked country for a chance at a lucrative business opportunity. While these conflicts don’t directly involve Agu, he is a witness — and so we are able to piece together the larger schemes at work.
Criterion’s selection of Beasts of No Nation is already notable for its place in recent film history as now streaming giant Netflix’s first theatrically-released narrative feature. Back then, it was a move once scoffed at by movie theaters and studio titans–now, studios have been forced to embrace a shorter theatrical window and the proliferation of at-home on-demand content. But what’s often eclipsed from this fact is how Beasts is a film that rejects the then-traditional mandates that goalposted a financially lucrative Western film. Compared to more “palatable” films like Hotel Rwanda or Empire of the Sun, It’s a film full of uncomfortable moral ambiguity, uncompromising bloodshed, and no American stars (let alone white American stars). According to the included making-of featurette, financing was difficult to attain for these exact reasons–and six years later, Beasts of No Nation’s legacy as both an important touchstone in representation as well as the evolution of modern film is cemented in this Blu-ray package.
Criterion presents Beasts of No Nation in a 1080p HD transfer in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio, sourced from the film’s original 2K digital master and approved by writer-director-cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga. Included is a 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track, sourced from the film’s original digital audio master files. English SDH subtitles are included for the main feature.
Like Criterion’s past Netflix collaborations, Beasts of No Nation excels due to a format-pushing amount of visual clarity without the encumbrance of a limited streaming network connection. Being natively shot on digital further breaks down the need for additional restoration efforts, resulting in a transfer that’s as close to original quality as one can get for this film. Fukunaga’s signature visuals–organic light, clashing color combinations, and an emphasis on the vibrant chaos of the natural world–are fully realized here, with dark shadows lit by flickering firelight, hypnotic infrared visuals that slowly bleed back into realistic colors, and smoky, dust-strewn rubble all beautifully depicted without loss of detail or clarity. The accompanying 5.1-channel track brings the frenzied soundscape to uncomfortably detailed reality, balancing foley work, dialogue, and Dan Romer’s score in equal measure.
- Audio Commentary: Newly recorded exclusively for this release, this track features Cary Joji Fukunaga and First Assistant Director Jon Mallard.
- Passion Project: This extensive behind-the-scenes documentary produced for this new Blu-ray edition examines the arduous production process, including Beasts’ origins in Uzodinma Iweala’s novel; Fukunaga’s adaptation, which keeps faithful to the Krio Pidgin English of the source material; searching for and casting the film’s legion of child actors, led by newcomer Abraham Attah and mentored by Idris Elba; and the necessary evolution of Fukunaga’s freeform yet disciplined shooting style, after circumstances unexpectedly led him to become his own Cinematographer position shortly into the shoot.
- Cary Joji Fukunaga and Franklin Leonard: Fukunaga sits with the film and TV producer (and founder of the influential screenwriting organization The Black List) to discuss the writer/director’s reckoning as an American foreigner tackling this particular subject, the origins of the project, and his consultation with former child soldiers to ensure Beasts’ dedication to authenticity.
- Costume Design: Beasts Costume Designer Jenny Eagan talks through her methodology of sourcing and creating regionally authentic costumes in remote shooting locations.
- Trailer for Beasts of No Nation’s original dual Netflix/theatrical release.
- Booklet including an essay by critic Robert Daniels on Beasts of No Nation’s relationship with the history of cinema, child soldiers, and colonialism, notably in how the film defies stunted Western expectations of the agency of the film’s protagonists as well as that of the countries they call home.
Beasts of No Nation is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.