Boy soldier narrates war tragedy

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Boy soldier narrates war tragedy


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Movies are very often slaves to catharsis, i.e. that feeling you get when something awesome happens in a movie, when the protagonist makes a heroic leap, delivers a one-liner or when the monster pops up in a horror movie. So many modern movies are completely and utterly reliant on trying to create these little moments, these times when everything comes together, often to the detriment of every other element of the work, especially the characters. On a very visceral level, this makes perfect sense. Movies are short. Watching someone get brutally torn in half by a machine gun while screaming a few seconds and creates a very strong reaction in an audience. Character arcs typically take an entire movie to set up and execute. The simple fact of the matter is that catharsis is easy.

“Beasts of No Nation” does not contain a single ounce of catharsis, violent or otherwise, until the very end. This is what makes it brilliant. It also makes it hard to enjoy and difficult to talk about. Because, like it or not, we are intrigued when someone, good or bad, gets brutalized in a movie. We like to think that in that brutality, often commented upon by the characters afterward, we see some sort of meaning. We glean an understanding of brutality. We get it.

Well, “Beasts of No Nation” is here to tell you that you do not get it, and that there is nothing to get. A bunch of people die. The young boy Agu loses his home, Agu kills people and other people kill other people. At the end of the day, all it adds up to is what it is: a bunch of people dying. You can try to glean meaning from that if you want, but the film doesn’t offer any. This is a film about the plight of child soldiers in Africa, yet it never feels exploitative, and it never moralizes.

Here, stripped down to the bare essentials, is a war movie that should’ve contained all that sweet, heartbreaking catharsis the Academy loves to award with Oscars, but “Beasts of No Nation” wants no part of that. War is not presented as something honorable; it is not presented as something that moves people forward in the way people seem to think World War II moved us forward. Instead, war is presented as a series of increasingly traumatic events.

The final note of the movie is not one of hope but one of recovery. It presents war as only something to be survived, which for Agu, a young boy with no stake in any faction of the war he is unceremoniously thrust into, is true.

If nothing else, “Beasts of No Nation” is a triumph of movies saying something new for once.

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