New Movies — From the November 2015 issue

New Movies

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Early on in the movie adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel, Beasts of No Nation, Agu, the preteen protagonist, and his unnamed older brother have just pulled off an impish scam — demanding money from a passing driver to remove a tree branch they themselves had hacked down to block the road — when they are accosted by a wild-haired old lady. Agu’s father, a local schoolteacher, has set aside some of his family’s land to shelter refugees displaced by the escalating civil war in this unnamed West African country — land the furious “witch woman” maintains is hers. “I know your whole family!” she raves. “The devil will bless you one by one!” Later, when troops from the ruling National Reformation Council arrive and line up nonpartisan townsfolk, including Agu and his family, the old woman makes good on her curse by claiming not to recognize them. “They are not from here,” she tells the soldiers. “They must be rebels.” Agu escapes, but his father and brother are summarily executed as spies.

The tidiness of this narrative arrangement is typical of the film, and instructive as to the distortions inherent in the adaptation process. In Iweala’s novel, his father’s execution happens not because he is betrayed by an incidental character but because senseless, indiscriminate killing is the air the novel breathes. It’s debatable, of course, whether the restless momentum of film demands the strict causative logic of A-leads-to-B, or whether this is merely an orthodoxy that has hardened into a rule, but in Beasts of No Nation the adherence to the creed of character motivation (by Cary Joji Fukunaga, directing his own adapted screenplay) has damaging consequences for the film’s persuasive power. Toward the end of the film (readers may take this spoiler alert as due notice of all the spoilers to follow), after Agu has been pressed into child soldiery, the leader of the rebel unit, who is known only as Commandant and is played by Idris Elba, is abandoned by his battalion when a rift with the Supreme Commander — Jude Akuwudike, Bond-villainous in his crisp diction and white short-sleeved safari suit — results in a desperate shortage of supplies. In the book, one of Agu’s fellow insurgents simply gets fed up one day and guns Commandant down. “Commandant is dead,” observes book-Agu, flatly. “It was so easy to be killing him.”

Still from Beasts of No Nation. Courtesy Netflix

Still from Beasts of No Nation. Courtesy Netflix

Where the movie, then, is conventionally dramatic, the novel derives its affect precisely, and paradoxically, from the affectlessness of Agu’s narration and the breakdown of meaningful causation it both enacts and describes. The universe of the movie is still moral; actions have consequences. In the novel, as Agu gets high on “gun juice,” a presumably amphetaminic stimulant “tasting like bullet and sugarcane,” and learns to kill without compunction, past and future give way to a perpetual depthless present of numbed barbarity. We are moved because Agu isn’t. The novel’s argot, whose rhythms and syntax are reportedly imitative of several Nigerian languages, underwrites this sense of blank, ceaseless futility by subsuming events into a pidgin present continuous. “All the time bullet is just eating everything, leaf, tree, ground, person — eating them — just making person to bleed everywhere.” “I am wanting to kill; I don’t know why. I am just wanting to kill.”

The idiom is preserved in the adaptation, both in dialogue and in Agu’s voice-over, but to less purpose. The language resists affect while the movie perseveres in imposing it. One unexpected corollary of Fukunaga’s insistence on cause and effect, on an audit trail of explicability, is his squeamishness with regard to atrocity. From one perspective, this is defensible, since film is a literalist medium whose depictions of extreme violence can’t avoid being more explicit than they appear on the page. When a small girl is torn from her mother and stomped to death, or Agu is sexually abused by Commandant, it’s both ethically and aesthetically justified that the camera, no less than the audience, should want to look away. But in another respect, the movie’s representations of violence are unduly cautious. In the book, when Agu and his mute friend, Strika, discover the mother and child hiding under a bed, the wrenching horror of what follows derives not only from the acts described but from Agu’s dissociated description of them: “I am standing outside myself and I am watching it all happening.” On-screen, by contrast, Agu cuts short the mother’s rape by shooting her in the head — horrific, for sure, but also an act of mercy. Here, too, the urge to explanation and motivation places Agu’s actions in a coherent moral context, and thereby squanders the opportunity to show these horrors for what they are, however much we might sympathize with Agu’s own brutalization: irredeemable.

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