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At What Age Do Beasts Bare Fangs

The difference between “Right” and “Wrong”, also known as morality. Morality is a subject you could spend your entire life studying. The color of every morally ambiguous situation is usually gray, and when you start adding children into that equation the color gets even more hazy. “Beasts Of No Nation” is an emotionally powerful look into such a world, the world of a child solider.  How fast can the moral compass of a child turn when confronted by extreme circumstance. Based on the same-titled novel by Uzodinma Iweala, the film waste no time putting us in the shoes of Agu (Abraham Attah).  An 8-year-old orphan, who after witnessing the death of his family finds himself conscripted into a militia.

Agu was a normal boy and lived in a normal village. That peace is disrupted when the nation’s civil war finally reaches his home town. The situation forces Agu’s father to send his mother and younger sister to another city to live as refugees. While the men, now including Agu, stay and try to defend the town. When his father is killed, Agu is forced to flee into the jungle. It is here that Agu is discovered by a militia. Filled with men and boys around the same age as Agu and some not much older. He is interrogated by the leader of the militia referred only by the title “Commandant” ( Idris Elba ). It is here that almost immediately does the Commandant being the first lesson in molding Agu.  The troop generally has no qualm about the young Agu even describing him as “nothing”.

“A boy. A boy is nothing. A boy is harmless? Does the boy have two eyes to see? The boy has two hands to strangle and fingers to pull triggers……. That boy is very dangerous.”              ~ Commandant

As so begins Agu’s journey into a world that he could never have imagined. A world filled with violence that he would learn to encounter, commit and unfortunately embrace as a means to survive. Beast doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to the portrayal of this violence, it’s so prevalent that it almost seems like its own character at times. That is not to be confused with the gore fest we’ve come to expect around this time of year. This film is a war movie at its heart, and controversy aside does not let that part of its identity slip past us.

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At its core Beasts is a story about a childhood denied. The best part about that story is that you really don’t understand who took it away. The Commandant will get a lot of the initial focus. He is in a lot of ways the most distributing portion of the film. Someone managing to be a combination of Father figure, Coach, Brother, Drill Sergeant all in one. Switching, seemingly in an instant, between concerned and caring to cold and calculating. His power coming from the loyalty of his troops. Loyalty he has embedded in them with rituals, motivational speeches, weapons and most importantly… purpose. It almost covers him like an armor, and at times seems impenetrable.

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However, director Cary Fukunaga does a very good job trying to illustrate a much more complicated picture. You never know if the side Agu is fighting on is for lack of a better word, the good guys.  This is a world playing by a different set of rules. All Agu knows, and for what it’s worth cares about. Is that he is fighting for the team opposite of the side that killed his father. I never got a sense if those responsible were a foreign invading army, a defense force, etc. Fukunaga does his best job to keep this civil war as ambiguous as possible.  In a way the film isn’t concerned with concrete reasons as it is about numerous red flags.  You get the feeling that this is wrong, or that is wrong and he leaves it to the audience to really feel those things out.  This done with some really bold choices in cinematography that makes some great choices on what to show and how to show it.

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Even with all that, something about this film did end flat for me.  To be honest, I can’t quite figure out if it was something the film left out.  A story as emotionally heavy as this one, I’m not sure how you end it in a complete fashion.  When its all said and done, there aren’t any winners in a scenario like this.  That is not to say the film doesn’t have an appropriate ending, but you can’t help but feel like you didn’t get the end of the story.  The film just decides that this is a good place to stop, the journey is what it wanted to put on display.  Innocence lost is not necessarily something that is regained, a sentiment strongly pounded home by Agu himself towards the end of the film.

“I cannot be going back to doing child things”        ~Agu

 B

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xb9Ty-1frw&w=560&h=315]

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