Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation is a rare war film that doesn’t release the audience from its terrifying grasp as we watch the horrors of guerrilla warfare being committed by children and young men.
Editor’s Note: Beasts of No Nation releases on Netflix on October 16.
Many war films have endless battle scenes that allow the audience to mindlessly watch destruction take place, but Beasts of No Nation never lets you forget that this is the experience of a nine-year old boy and the corruption of his innocence. The film is based on Uzodinma Iweala’s searing novel of the same name, and Fukunaga doesn’t lose the essence of the degradation and lack of morality in the practice of turning kids into soldiers, even when he’s staging impressive battle scenes.
We meet Agu (Abraham Attah – a stunning young actor) in his seemingly idyllic childhood that’s largely untainted by the ongoing war that lies beyond his village where he plays soccer with his friends and wrestles with his older brother. This inviting technique allows the audience to immediately sympathize with Agu, especially when the new refugees come to a neighbouring town, and the duelling rebels and government destroy his village and kill his family. We become Agu, who tells us in his hushed voiceover, “I am a good boy from a good family.” That’s in our mind when he’s recruited by the NDF guerrilla team. It’s here where he meets the Commandant (Idris Elba), an enigmatic and ruthless man who takes a shine to Agu, and has him trained as a soldier rather than kill him.
Elba is magnificent in this role, making the Commandant a charismatic devil. You can understand why these children and Agu are so virulently with him through murder and chaos. Elba never veers in caricature, and he builds up the character with brainwashing speeches that decry how various factions like ECOMOD and PLF (reminding us that the oppressive forces are interchangeable for the rebels) are undermining their struggle. One particular scene stands out as the Commandant gets his battalion dancing and chanting before riling them up with taunts, and sending them out to slaughter in one battle. Elba’s face twitches as he misses on calling Agu, which is heartbreaking. It’s a toxic and co-dependant relationship between the two that gets much intimately darker later on, but he retains a paternalism that allows you to understand why the newly-orphaned Agu follows him.
Fukunaga balances all his duties as writer, director, and producer expertly, but its his cinematography that finds beauty out of the ugliness of war, especially the battle scenes that are wide in scope but feel resolutely intimate through the eyes of a child. Whether its the child soldiers burning huts in silhouettes or Agu’s first kill in slo-mo as he hacks an innocent man, the cinematography is unbelievably good. As Agu’s descent into the hell of war becomes worse, we see him taking the “brown-brown” of heroin, which numbs him to the killing until he sees the grass and trees in blood-red while the rest becomes monotone.
Watch the trailer for Beasts of No Nation
It’s a furious film permeated by Fukunaga ferocious pacifism even when he’s depicting atrocities, where the capacity to shock never dwindles and breaks the heart of the viewer every time we see Agu lose his spirit and innocence. It turns almost Shakespearean when the Commandant is dressed down by his superior, who fears that they’ll be brought before a war crimes tribunal. The war has taken over his life, and he’s quick to rebel against his orders like a Brutus or Macbeth figure. Beasts of No Nation is a fantastic but disturbing look at the life of a child soldier that offers no easy or tidy conclusions, but doesn’t let the audience off the hook for being part of a world where these types of tragedies exist.