“Beasts of No Nation” is the first narrative feature film released directly through Netflix, skipping the traditional route of wide theatrical release. Based upon the 2005 novel by Uzodinma Iweala, it tells the story of Agu (Abraham Attah, in his first screen role), a preadolescent boy living in a town located within the “buffer zone” in an unnamed and war-ravaged African country. He lives a pleasant but impoverished life with his family. He goes to school, plays delightfully obscene pranks on his sex-obsessed older brother and sells goods to soldiers in exchange for food.
But his life of innocence is interrupted by war, and Agu, after witnessing the murder of his brother, must flee from whizzing bullets into the African jungle. Here, he is taken by a rebel faction — abstractly named the NDF — and turned into a boy soldier. A charismatic and malicious man named the Comandante (Idris Elba, “Thor”) leads the army, becoming a father figure for Agu. Elba gives a charm and horror to the General Kurtz-like role; he provides just enough charm to convince and just enough horror to appal.
Quickly, the realities of war erase the joys of childhood. As part of the initiation process, the Comandante forces Agu to kill an innocent man with a machete — he can’t kill him on the first blow, and during the subsequent blows (in slow motion, of course), blood spatters sensationally on the camera lens. Later, after telling Agu how special he is, the Comandante rapes him.
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who also shot and wrote the film, defers to show this moment, lending it a weight that the heavily stylized scenes of war lack. The pomp and bombast of explosions and gunshots rarely capture drama in the film. But Fukunaga shows he’s got more Stephen Crane than Jason Bay. Fukunaga — who also directed the first season of “True Detective,” one of the greatest seasons in television history — is an exceptional storyteller. He deftly supplies the film with details that hold down the spectacle of war with a human element.
And this skill with detail extends itself to the most potent scene in the film. Agu carries his best friend Strika, who has not spoken for the entire film. Strika cannot walk because he’s been wounded by a stray bullet. Agu talks to him until, stopping to see if Strika is listening, Strika falls off his back onto the ground, dead. This scene works because of the characterization done beforehand. Strika’s muteness, that odd, necessary personal detail, grants the scene the force it needs.
Yet, the film strives more for psychological portraiture than out-and-out war film and aims for universal human dignity over local political context. The film suffers from the vagueness of its political situation. Fukunaga seems to deny contextualization to focus on the psychological complexities of Agu’s transformation from boy to soldier. But why not tell us we’re in Sierra Leone? Or Liberia? In most films, political antagonisms and realities are obvious, even when directors try to disguise them. It’s an odd omission that blunts the force of the film.
“Beasts of No Nation” isn’t easy to watch. It doesn’t shy away from brutality. Punctuated by beautiful cinematography of the African landscape, we see children murder, cities burn, women raped. It’s not quite a necessary watch — although it has the potential to be an Oscar darling — but it’s well worth it.