Ever since the first season of HBO’s True Detective came seemingly out of nowhere, people have been clamoring for the next project from director Cary Fukanaga. That next project turned out to be a small movie shot in Africa about the plight of child soldiers, which he wrote and directed. It’s unlikely anyone could have predicted that exactly, but Beasts of No Nation feels like a logical next step. The film is a showcase for Fukanaga’s filmmaking style and it’s helped along by a terrifyingly charismatic performance from Idris Elba and a powerhouse debut from young Abraham Attah.
War movies made these days are never glamorous, nor should they be. To use an overused idiom, War is Hell. However, few movies show just how hellish war is more than Beasts of No Nation, mainly because it depicts how the horrors of war affect children, who are sadly the ones recruited for wars in West Africa. Based on the book of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, the film creates a dizzying, hallucinatory atmosphere befitting a child in such surroundings, with such violence all around him. Fukanaga’s camera style (he was his own cinematographer) captures this attitude, being as fluid and unpredictable as the circumstances thanks to a handheld, 360-degree digital shooting style.
Young Abraham Attah plays Agu, the younger son of a couple living within a protected township in West Africa. Agu plays and imagines with his friends and older brother, who only wants to sleep with women, all the while armies and insurgent groups threaten their safety. One day it becomes clear that an army is approaching. Agu’s mother and baby brother get taken away to safety, but the men have to stay, including Agu. After a horrible attack, Agu makes a break for the jungle where his survival is certainly not assured, until he’s found by a wandering army of child soldiers fighting for the opposite side (or maybe they aren’t, it doesn’t really matter). The battalion’s Commandant (Elba) immediately establishes himself as a mentor figure to Agu and says he can get revenge for his family if he sticks with the group. Agu, blinded by rage and with little else in the way of options, agrees and becomes a soldier.
As the film goes on, Agu is more and more a battle-hardened warrior, going from ammo boy to full soldier after his first kill. He has a similar-aged kindred spirit in the mute Strika (Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom Quaye) and they partake in drugs with the older boys, which leads Agu down some very dark paths. While this is going on, the Commandant is under pressure from his boss to continue the campaign, which he thinks will lead to his promotion. He becomes suspicious of his second-in-command (Kurt Egyiawan) and this paranoia leads to many more problems. Ultimately, young Agu is forced to decide whether continuing this warpath is what he wants.
This is a heavy, heavy film and it, thankfully, pulls no punches. These battles are fought by the very young (the average child soldier is 14-years-old but can be as young as 6) and they’ve mostly been trained by other kids. So things get violent, even for war. However, despite the loss of innocence of the characters, the movie never gets too maudlin, until it needs to be, and we continue to remain hopeful for Agu’s eventual salvation, even as the likelihood of that seems to slip further and further away.
The performances in the film are truly top-notch. Elba, who is also a producer on the film, maintains a swagger when leading the troops and giving pep talks that enthralls anyone, character or audience. One scene features him walking into battle without a weapon while all his boys shoot on either side of him. It’s equal parts awesome bravado and demented madness, which sums up his character more and more as the film continues. Attah absolutely carries the film on his back and gives a sad and haunting performance as Agu, who also narrates the film, talking to God about whether he’s doing the right thing. By the end of the film, you almost can’t believe it’s the same little boy, he’s so broken.
Beasts of No Nation debuts on Netflix on Friday, October 16. It’s truly one of the best films I’ve seen this year and might be one of the best war movies of the modern era. It’s full of imagery I haven’t been able to shake since I left the screening, and I’m confident you’ll feel the same way.
4.5 out of 5 War-Hardened Burritos
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!