Beasts of No Nation is Netflix’s first original film. It’s a gripping piece of narrative cinema that considers the effects of war through the eyes of a child soldier.
Directed by Cary Fukunaga (True Detective Season One), Beasts of No Nation finds some beauty, and moments of respite, amongst its violent and frequently sadistic contexts.
Starring Abraham Attah in a nuanced performance as Agu, a young boy captured by a violent warlord known only as Commandant (Idris Elba), the film focuses on his transition from school boy to violent and competent killer.
Hallucinations, Madness, and Violence
There’s a darkness that infuses the film, and Agu undergoes a series of upsetting and challenging initiations into the rebel army. His fellow child soldiers are battered waif like figures who ingest heroin and smoke drugs to escape their surroundings, or like other primitive fighting forces before them, to make battle easier.
It lends Agu’s journey a hallucinatory tone, one that’s captured effectively in the colour of the film itself. Moments pop with vibrancy, but the beauty of the cinematography stands in stark contrast to the horrors of the fictional African conflict. There are exhilarating highs of religious like fervour, and then there are the crashing defeats and the mind numbing lows.
Agu undergoes psychological abuse and brainwashing at the hands of the Commandant, who has taken a shine to the young boy. Agu, himself a victim of the war, saw his father and brother executed by government soldiers, so he jumps at the chance for revenge.
The most effective part of Beasts of No Nation is the way that it tells Agu’s story. His narrative spans peace time, albeit in the shadow of a war, and the opening sequences of the film introduce audiences to a gentler world, a place of family, where Agu has fun with his friends, and lives in a peaceful town.
Lost Childhood, Stolen Naiveté
But as Agu is forced further and further into the jungle, towards places where madness, hallucinations, and violence live, he has to become harder and leave his childhood and its naïveté behind. It’s a painful journey to watch, and for the most part, the film offers little in the way of hope.
Agu does what he has to do to surive. He becomes part of the guerrilla army, effectively a secret society with its cabalistic rituals and its myths, led by its charismatic demi god in the form of the Commandant. But Agu is only a child, and so are his comrades. This army of children deals with things that most adults would be incapable of handling.
From the considered cinematography, to the tense and realistic combat scenes, Beasts of No Nation consistently shows its impressive attention to detail, and it contextualises everything within a tightly written narrative. Attah and Elba lend the film strong performances, with Agu emerging as a conflicted and tortured child, and the Commandant revealing himself to be less of a monster, and more of a man, evil, but vulnerable too.
The film considers the effects of conflict on each one of its characters, and it wrings some real emotion from its often brutal narrative. Agu lends us child’s eyes, initially letting us see his world in right and wrong, before jaded grown up perspectives, one’s cynical with time and age, replace his idealism.
This is an epic in the Classical Hollywood sense of the word, it’s grand in scope, and it challenges audiences with its strong moral core.
There are influences that have to be acknowledged, most specifically there’s a scene that could’ve been lifted out of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but Beasts of No Nation adds far more than it borrows to the war movie genre.
Beasts of No Nation isn’t an easy film to watch, and it shouldn’t be. It tells a story that’s as challenging as it is thrilling. There are heart breaking moments, things that happen to Agu that no one should have to see or deal with, but he gets through it. There’s hope inherent in the tale, although its buried deep, just like Agu had to do with parts of himself in order to survive.
Fukunaga made a film with merit. It confidently delves into a terrible story, and it tells it with nuance and respect. There are excellent performances, emotive character led action sequences, and the story seen through the eyes of an impressionable and tormented child, is frequently overwhelming.
This isn’t an entertaining film, instead it’s more like a documentary with staged reenactments. The sad truth is that there are plenty of children like Agu, young souls forced to deal with an adult world before their time. With Beasts of No Nation, Netflix has added a strong piece of cinema to its burgeoning portfolio of original programming – just in time for awards season.