“What is this thing doing here?” the Commandant (Idris Elba, “The Wire”) questions as he first lays eyes upon young Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah). “Who is responsible for bringing this thing?”
Set in war-torn Africa, “Beasts of No Nation” explores what turns an innocent child like Agu into “the thing” the Commandant sees, one of the titular beasts of the title.
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (“True Detective”), “Beasts of No Nation” shows the unstable peace that defines Agu’s life and quickly tears it down, until only war remains. Fukunaga’s ability to craft atmosphere, a skill that brought the director widespread attention after helming the entirety of “True Detective” ’s first season, is put on full display throughout the film.
Fukunaga, who served as his own cinematographer, casts Agu’s pre-war existence in a faint orange glow, the sparks of a fire that’s ready to erupt. When the fire is lit, and Agu’s father and brother are executed, the boy finds himself among the greens of the shadowy jungle, his future unknown. Agu finds his guiding light when he comes across the Commandant and his rebel militia under the NDF.
In the nameless country where “Beasts of No Nation” takes place, the politics of revolution and the different factions, of varying three letter abbreviations, fade to the background in the face of the utter brutality that occurs during war. Agu is indoctrinated into the world of the Commandant who breaches, “You must die to be reborn.”
Agu becomes a child soldier in both senses of the term. He is reborn a warrior but still retains his youth and inexperience. This childhood innocence is stripped away, piece-by-piece as Agu goes through war. Yet, even as Agu finds himself committing more violent acts he maintains a basic goodness, a light of hope against rising inhumanity. His friendship with fellow young soldier Strika (newcomer Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) brings out the best in both characters. Agu finds a companion and friend, while Strika, an initially ominous mute, is reexamined and humanized throughout the film.
In his first film, Attah delivers a commendable performance as Agu. The pain and suffering Agu goes through shows itself on Attah’s face as he becomes progressively more somber, the bright smile of childhood disappearing into a scarred stare of exhaustion. In several scenes, Fukunaga guides his camera through extended takes where Attah has to take his character through a gauntlet of emotions and each time the young actor is up to the task.
Just as Agu evolves, so too does the perception of the Commandant. At first, the man is a charismatic leader, taking in boys to form a motley crew of young warriors. But, slowly this façade fades away until the true monstrosity behind the man is revealed. He’s an abusive parent, building up his followers so he can use them to his own end, degrading or threatening those who don’t comply. Elba portrays each part of this vicious cycle with a dominating screen presence that displays the Commandants paradoxical allure and repulsiveness. Along with Attah, Elba sells the complex relationship these two characters have as the Commandant drags Agu deeper into the heart of darkness.
These compelling elements drive “Beasts of No Nation” forward even when the film is lacking. At 137 minutes, the film drags at points, since the ongoing war grows tedious. Meanwhile, some character deaths fail to resonate as well as they should due to a lack of development earlier in the film. This is a shame, because when well-constructed characters die there’s a great sense of loss as Agu loses his comrades one-by-one
Even when “Beasts of No Nation” is lacking, Fukunaga’s visual aptitude along with Attah and Elba’s performances continually make the film an intriguing watch. Much has been made about “Beasts of No Nation” ’s simultaneous release in theatres and on Netflix, prompting several chains to refuse screening the film. It’s unfortunate that this limits opportunities for audiences to see “Beasts of No Nation” in theatres, because there are moments that would have been great to see play out on the big screen. However, as the vanguard of Netflix’s foray into feature film production, “Beasts of No Nation” is a notable success that hopefully establishes the foundations of further growth for the streaming service.