“Beasts of No Nation” strikes us hard with intense moments both gut-wrenching and devastating. It is chilling to watch its little young hero being turned into a little savage creature of war, and it is also heartbreaking to see him being scarred by a war of which he does not have any clear understanding at all. This is difficult to watch indeed, but its unflinching look at the corruption of innocence by human savagery and depravity comes with undeniable emotional power to grip us even at its darkest moments.
During the first 10 minutes of the film, we look into the daily life of a young boy named Agu, played by young Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah. He and his loving family live in a buffer zone of an unnamed West African country probably somewhere around Nigeria, and it looks like nothing bad will happen to his small, comfortable world. The country is still struggling with its conflict problems, and their school is recently closed while refugees keep coming into the buffer zone, but Agu and other neighborhood kids are just happy to enjoy their free time. In the opening sequence, he and his friends try to sell an ‘imagination TV’ to adults, and we cannot help but be amused by these kids’ innocent but creative demonstration.
However, the buffer zone is no longer safe when another conflict in the country gets worse than before. Shortly after Agu’s mother manages to leave with her two young daughters, the area is ravaged by soldiers eager to shoot whoever happens to be in their sight. While the rest of his family are killed along with many local people during this horrible situation, Agu luckily survives, but then he comes across another serious danger. After he wanders alone into a nearby jungle forest, he is suddenly captured by a group of child soldiers, and then he confronts the Commandant (Idris Elba), their hulking charismatic leader who sees that Agu can be useful as another child solider under his command.
Intimidated by the Commandant and his soldiers, Agu joins the Commandant’s battalion, and that is merely the beginning of more horrors to come. We observe several rituals which Agu and other newcomers go through for being ‘reborn’ as soldiers, and there is a cruel moment when one of them fails to go through one ritual. We see how they are trained to shoot and kill while constantly motivated by the Commandant’s lieutenants, most of whom are just a little older than other child soldiers. In front of his whole battalion, the Commandant makes a grand speech about what they fight for, but his speech can be distilled into one simple (and evil) principle: do whatever he orders.
And Agu soon finds himself tested by the Commandant, who demands him to kill a helpless guy during the aftermath of their successful raid operation. Like other violent scenes in the film, this gut-wrenching moment does not show us too much of its bloody details, but it is effective enough for us to sense its sheer horror. Once he crosses the line, Agu finds that the rest is very easy to do, and there is no going back for him after that. He gets accustomed and then numbed to violence and death as he and other child soldiers move around their lawless region, and drug comes handy to him as a desperate way of detaching himself from his despairing reality.
As reflected by his phlegmatic narration, Agu is well aware of the atrocities he witnesses or perpetrates, but he keeps tumbling down further into the heart of darkness as being bound to the Commandant’s virulent influence. He comes to regard the Commandant as a fearful leader/father figure he must obey for survival and acceptance just like other child soldiers around him, and some of these boys become sort of new brothers for Agu to hang out with. When they are not on their missions, they show the remaining fragments of their innocence from time to time, and the most notable one among these damaged but dangerous boys is a mute kid nicknamed Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), whose hardened façade speaks volume through its uneasy silence.
“Beasts of No Nation” is the third feature film by the director/cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga, who also adapted Uzodinma Iweala’s acclaimed novel for his film. His remarkable debut feature film “Sin Nombre” (2009) was a harrowing drama about Latin immigrants on their long, perilous journey to the Mexico-US border, and some of its memorable moments come from a little Mexican boy who are eager to impress his ruthless gang leader. There is a clear parallel between that kid and Agu; so mesmerized by swagger and menace exuded from their evil macho leaders, these boys let themselves pushed toward senseless violence for becoming a ‘man’, and the outcome is irreversible for both of them to say the least.
Like “Sin Nombre”, “Beasts of No Nation” feels vivid and realistic with the palpable sense of location and people. While there are occasional moments of lyrical beauty when the camera quietly looks at green sceneries from the distance, the combat sequences are taut and bleak with considerable verisimilitude to shake and unnerve us. In one gritty long-take sequence, the camera fluidly moves along with Agu as he and other child soldiers break into a building and then casually brutalize a woman and a girl who happen to be hiding inside the building. There is also a hallucinatory scene where green is turned into red on the screen as Agu goes through another combat for kill, and its deliberately unrealistic mood further emphasizes his mind distorted and damaged by the brutality of war.
Fukunaga pays attentions to his story and characters as well, and he handles them with subtle touches to reflect on later. After a disturbing scene involved with the Commandant’s certain unspeakable deed which is not directly shown on the screen, you may realize that there were already brief hints foreshadowing it. In spite of its relentless bleakness, the movie is not entirely devoid of humor, and there is a big ironic moment later in the story after the Commandant is summoned by his superior, who does not treat him as well as he hopefully expected.
Fukunaga draws good performances from the cast mainly consisting of non-professional performers. With his strong, unadorned performance, Abraham Attah earnestly carries the film as its tarnished heart and soul, and he handles well many difficult moments in the film under Fukunaga’s thoughtful direction. Attah and his fellow young actors look natural and spontaneous in their scenes, and Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye has a small touching moment when his character gives a little consolation to Agu as a person who probably knows well what Agu has just gone through.
On the opposite, Idris Elba, who is the only notable professional actor in the film, is compelling in his monstrous performance while never upstaging his young co-star. Electrifying with his own magnetic presence whenever that is required, Elba is also superb in revealing the hollow core covered behind the exaggerated machismo of his loathsome character, and one of his best scenes comes when the Commandant turns out to be nothing more than a disposable human pawn in the game of local politics played by his superior and others above. That undeniable fact is clearly shown to not only the Commandant but also Agu and other child soldiers around him, and it inevitably leads to another moment of madness and despair, which feels like a pathetic parody somewhere between “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972).
While I was impressed a lot by those commendable elements in the movie, I also noticed its weak points during my viewing. As it firmly sticks to its hero’s narrow viewpoint, the movie is rather murky about the background details of the ongoing conflict in the story, and that may frustrate some of you, though I guess that is an intentional storytelling choice to make the story feel, well, more universal. In addition, its finale part is less impactful compared to the rest of the film due to an understandable reason, and I think it could have been trimmed a bit without much problem.
“Beasts of No Nation” is a tough stuff, but it is worthwhile to watch this brutal but powerful war drama. As watching its ending, I was reminded of when I watched a short documentary about diamonds from war zones in Africa several years ago. I remember well one scene featuring former child soldiers, and it was really sad to see them recounting all those terrible things they were forced to do when they were young enough to be manipulated and exploited. They looked haunted by their violent past, and so will Agu, even if he gets his simple wish someday: “I just want to be happy in this life.”
Sidenote: When the movie got a limited theatrical release in US during last week, its distributor Netflix also released it through online streaming service. It will be interesting to see whether this will set a new trend in movie distribution business.