There aren’t many Hollywood films about the wars in West African countries. Generally these are told in an oblique outsider fashion through the eyes of journalists, UN soldiers or foreign white saviours observing the conflict as it unfolds, see Blood Diamond (2006), Tears of the Sun (2003), Beyond Borders (2003) and Black Hawk Down (2001). Hotel Rwanda (2004) perhaps is a rare exception to this where Hollywood star Don Cheadle played a Rwandian national so that we experience the events firsthand as an insider.
Beasts is another exception. I was surprised to discover it was directed by HBO True Detective (2014) creator Cary Joji Fukunaga, who is clearly not from Sierre Leone. Interestingly, the themes of masculinity, violence and spiritualism in Uzodinma Iweala’s novel are not dissimilar to True Detective.
There are comparisons to similar films such as Empire of the Sun (1987) and Come and See (1985), and even City of God (2002), although the landscape and culture is pure West African; beautiful and unique. It reminded me of Platoon (1986), where an innocent boy is taken from his home to be exposed to the horrors of war that he can barely comprehend.
Like Charlie Sheen in Platoon, ‘Agu’, the orphaned refugee, he is thrown in at the deep end and made to fight for his survival. For me, Platoon very much felt like a modern version of Lord of the Flies, about an abandoned group boys forced to create their own hierchary in a world gone insane, descending into a cycle of violence and madness.
Sheen’s character, like Christian Bale in Empire or the young Russian in Come, never really understand what the war is about because they’re disposable, and as soldiers have one purpose only. This leads to an existential, moral conflict as the characters are forced to contemplate their actions whilst witnessing the trespasses of others. It’s an emotional, rather than political battle of identification.
There are scenes in Beasts that are as harrowing as Platoon or Come, however, it’s mostly Idris Elba’s powerful performance as the psychopathic rebel leader, ‘the Commandant’, that’s disturbing. One moment a benign father to his army of child soldiers, the next abusive, manipulative and predatory. He’s not dissimilar to Brando’s performance as ‘Col. Kurtz’ in Apolocalypse Now; articulate and charming, but also a sadistic bully with ambitions of his own.