The trials of childhood are many.
One gains knowledge about the world around them while at the same time just beginning to develop a sense of self. This process is irrevocably altered when warfare is thrown into the mix. What happens then? This question is what Beasts of No Nation seeks to address; whether it offers an answer is not important, rather its focus is squarely upon the heartbreaking cost of war and the deep scars that it leaves upon all involved, especially children.
From Cary Joji Fukunaga, director of Jane Eyre and the acclaimed first season of True Detective, comes the raw, unforgettable story of Agu, a young boy living in an unnamed African nation, whose life is upended when violence comes to his village. When a firefight between rebels and the national military leads to the death of his family, Agu is cast adrift, sent fleeing into the surrounding jungle with nothing to live for, nothing to call his own. He’s offered a chance at a new life when he crosses paths with a man known simply as, “The Commandant.” The enigmatic Commandant leads a war band of youths and children, using his charisma and charm to engender within Agu and his other recruits a sense of pride and togetherness. In them he forges a bond, not only to the nation in which they live, but to him personally. What follows is a horror show of wartime violence and trauma, viewed through a child’s eyes.
Beasts of No Nation is an incredible film. Technically, it is astounding. Cary Joji Fukunaga pulls triple duty, not only acting as the film’s director and cinematographer, but also as its writer, adapting this story from the experiences of real, former child soldier Uzodinma Iweala. In all respects, Fukunaga’s work is excellent. The direction, reminiscent of the dynamic beauty of his work in True Detective, is sublime, coupled with stunning cinematography that is aided by the film’s colorful palette, which is distinctly different from the usual monochromatic patina of modern war films. Conversely, the storytelling is also captivating, combining complex adult themes with Agu’s developing, yet still childlike outlook on the world. His mumbled reflections upon his situation, the world, and his horrific actions only become more heartbreaking as the film progresses, leading to a finale that is absolutely devastating. All of this is memorably supported by the swelling ambient soundtrack of Dan Romer (Beasts of the Southern Wild).
The film’s strong storytelling is skillfully supported by two outstanding performances. The first is that of Idris Elba (The Wire, Pacific Rim) as the Commandant. Elba effortlessly conveys the hypnotic quality of the Commandant’s charisma, making his manipulation of his child recruits entirely believable. The Commandant, while absolutely abhorrent in his own right, becomes something more than a boogeyman by the end of the film thanks to Elba’s efforts. He is demythologized and stripped bare, revealing an isolated man who is probably just as much a victim of obscene circumstances as the boys whose lives he has claimed for himself. The power of Elba’s performance is truly staggering and I hope that he gets some well-deserved recognition for it this year come awards season.
The second performance is that of newcomer Abraham Attah as the main character, Agu. Despite being his first role, Attah is a powerhouse of subtlety and nuance. His character’s arc is clearly conveyed through his acting choices and in every scene he brings a level of earnestness that really grounds the film and makes it that much more affecting. Attah’s acting, though excellent throughout, elevates to something else entirely in the film’s unforgettable final scene, which is equal parts haunting and hopeful.
Beasts of No Nation is one of the finest films of the year. It is an affecting war drama told with a careful mixture of emotional subtlety and harrowing violence and one that audiences will not soon forget. Given the unique circumstances of its release (simultaneously in theatres and on Netflix, which produced the film), I do not know if it will officially qualify for awards consideration. Whether or not it does, I think that this film is completely deserving of exuberant praise, not only for its excellence as a film, but also for the light that it sheds upon one of the ugliest realities of the modern world.
Beasts of No Nation is available now on Netflix Streaming. Watch it.