Admirable "Beasts Of No Nation" Fades In Third Act

The first two acts of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s child soldier film “Beasts Of No Nation” are so beautifully harrowing, so warm and generous in the face of abject horror that its third act turn to mediocrity feels like an impossible plunge.

Taken as a whole, the film is certainly a good one, rich with striking visuals and believable performances. Perhaps most notably, it sees Fukuanga – of “True Detective” fame – etch his auteur status in stone. He writes, directs, and shoots the film, much of it brilliantly, and its gorgeous photography might be the year’s absolute best.

But its late-game divorce from greatness is one of the most painful in recent memory. It suffers the kind of steep narrative nosedive from which even a previously excellent movie can’t recover, with Fukunaga the director and cinematographer finally outlasting Fukunaga the writer.

Adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name, the screenplay follows the story of a young boy named Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah) in an unnamed African country. He and his friends bide their time as young boys do, talking about girls and inventively turning things they don’t have into things they do have. Their “Imagination TV” is one of the movie’s best inventions, a shell of a television set through which the boys make up their own shows. It’s a creation that’s funny and charming and makes the story’s subsequent ugly turns that much uglier.

Agu is soon ripped from his family and village and forced into a band of adolescent child soldiers who know nothing but violence and mayhem. Their leader, known only as “Commandant,” is outwardly a masculine, brutish killing machine, in reality a pathetic, power-hungry weakling. Idris Elba (HBO’s “The Wire”) plays him entirely in sync with how the character is written and his scenes with Attah are uniformly gripping. A veteran performer and a rookie standing toe to toe, neither yielding.

The look of “Beasts” is like that of a documentary – verdant and naturalistic – except when it isn’t. During several chaotic scenes, Fukunaga oversaturates his colors and fudges his sound mix, and the effect is stunning. The characters’ disorientation is passed on to us – bullets flying amidst a sea of red, flashbangs turning a small village into a blinding hellscape.

A memorable long take is equally immersive. It’s a sequence reminiscent of the director’s “True Detective” calling card scene but less flashy and much more disciplined in its use of special effects – or lack thereof. It’s hardly noticeable but propulsive all the same, pushing the narrative to its logical breaking point. This is where, unfortunately, a wheel or two falls off.

As skillful as Fukunaga and Elba are at digging into the psychology of the Commandant, his story ultimately peters out. He could be anyone, any gutless, faceless killer – which may be the filmmaker’s point – but it makes him nearly superfluous to the film as a whole and blunts the impact of Agu’s arc, muddling what should have been a most poignant conclusion.

Instead, we understand the significance of what’s happened to Agu, but we don’t feel it. At least not in the same way we feel the battle scenes, the chaos, the terror. Where Fukunaga’s visual style is immediate and often monumental, his ability to convert it into thematic crescendos isn’t. The final twenty minutes are a strange, disappointing mix of hastiness and anti-climax, shockingly leaden and inconsequential.

Thankfully, the very last scene is a good one. The unfathomable drama of Agu’s story is brought full circle, a mix of hope and fear swelling with a few lines of disarmingly simple dialogue. Fukunaga has reclaimed his film. It’s too late to regain greatness, but enough to remind us of how great some of “Beasts Of No Nation” actually is.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: October 16, 2015 (Limited; Netflix)
Studio: Netflix
Director: Cary Fukunaga
Screenwriter: Cary Fukunaga
Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba
MPAA Rating: Not Rated