When I was a kid, the only things I had to worry about were getting my homework done, doing my chores, and usually something as trivial as deciding what I was going to do for fun that day. I didn’t have to worry about war, getting abducted, or being forced to kill. Beasts of No Nation, Netflix’s brand new movie from True Detective directory Cary Joji Fukunaga, is about the latter—a childhood full of pain, misery, and hope, all told through the eyes of the remarkable newcomer, Abraham Attah, in a powerful and harrowing film.
After his family is murdered, young Agu (Attah) is abducted by a group of soldiers, stripped of his humanity, and trained to be a killer. Leading the soldiers is the imposing Commandant (Idris Elba)—another unnamed figure that represents the evil of the system. Like movies such as Full Metal Jacket, Beasts of No Nation tells the story of the dehumanizing processes that create soldiers. The child soldiers are forcibly taken from their homes, their souls are destroyed through manipulation, brainwash, and torture, and then they are forced to become killers when they hardly understand the world around them.
Witnessing these atrocities through the naive eyes of Agu is devastating. He is one of the most complex characters of the year, and also has to deal with heavy subject matter. His childhood is ruined within the first 30 minutes of the film. We watch him go from a young boy playing games and making up imaginary television shows with his friends, but in an instant it is all destroyed. Sure there are some brief moments of youthfulness sprinkled throughout the movie, but they are merely a shiny facade covering a desolate building where no happiness flourishes and what would be a normally happy child is one who is forced to shoot, stab, and kill unarmed men and women.
There is a moment where he narrates a voiceover, and he questions why the sun would even shine on him and Africa when there is so much bloodshed, and coming from a kid that young, it is absolutely heartbreaking. Attah is a tremendous young actor who holds his place and composure throughout a film with immense tragedies and atrocities, and the gravitas of Idris Elba. He carries the film like a seasoned actor, but he’s only about 15.
Elba, as the dictatorial commandant, is terrifying. He is the type of unpredictable character who seems so nice and helpful at times, but he also is an immense figure that makes you fear and respect him despite his deeds. He does not care that he is forcing children to kill, all he cares about is winning the fight. Elba is a vastly underrated actor who should be getting far more recognition than he does, and he really shows his true breadth of talent here as he transforms into a fierce and unforgiving man that we eventually come to simply hate.
Despite the world of Beasts of No Nation being full of awful, ugly things, it is sure one hell of a pretty movie. Serving as the cinematographer, as well as the writer and director, Fukunaga really crafts a tight, heavy hitting movie that maintains focus without losing much of a beat. The juxtaposition of the horrible violence with the gorgeous African landscapes is stunning, as for brief times we forget there is such madness going on. The one issue that arose was the matter of the politics of the fake war involved; it is hard to tell who is fighting who for why, but in a way, our focus should only be on Agu—who himself does not know what is going on—so maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be for us, too.
Beasts of No Nation is a tremendous film. It handles the brutal subject matter with honesty and force. It is a painful film made more so by the fact that these things actually happen every day. Attah and Elba’s performances carry as through to the end, which is really the definition of bittersweet. Beasts of No Nation deserves your attention, so stop binge-watching whatever show you’re currently on for two hours and check it out, you’re likely to not forget it.