Beasts of No Nation Review
For years now Netflix has been working on original programming that has become major players in popular culture. House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and many more. Now they’re moving into high-profile theatrical films with a production that is being hailed as a serious awards contender from the director of the first series of the highly regarded True Detective.
Agu (Abraham Attah) is a young boy living in an unspecified African country with his family. When war tears them apart Agu is left lost and wandering in the forest. He is then recruited into a band of rebels led by The Commandant (Ibris Elba). Agu’s life is now one of brutality controlled through The Commandant’s charisma, abuse, and a steady stream of illegal substances, as he is surrounded by fellow young soldiers whose innocence has been taken too soon.
Beasts of No Nation is vicious, bloody, visceral and unflinching, but never unwatchable. It plays its horrors in a way that never feels forced or for the sake of simple shock value. This in turn forces you to face the very heart of the film. Agu’s story is singular and personal to draw us in, but also universal to make us understand that his story is widespread and very much a reality for many child soldiers today.
The central figure of the film, and in turn of Agu’s new life, is The Commandant, played with electric ferocity by Idris Elba. The Commandant is everything to his men; leader, father, liberator, oppressor, abuser, and protector. His recruitment techniques are cult-like, burying his charges alive and then having them shot with blanks to instil in them the belief that they are immortal, and his methods in battle are without any kind of compassion and mercy. Yet we know that he is in no way all-powerful, but instead a minor cog in a larger machine of violence, and one that could lose everything if taken out of that system. Elba’s performance paints a man that is despicable, but that you cannot take your eyes off of. Yet it is important with a character like his that it doesn’t take away from the centre of the narrative, which is Agu, and thankfully newcomer Abraham Attah is an amazing discovery that constantly holds his own, even in the harshest of moments of the film. Agu’s journey from innocence into darkness and then to the possibility of something else entirely is harrowing to watch, with Attah’s narration giving us the full emotional and mental spectrum of what Agu is going through.
Director Cary Fukunaga also wrote the screenplay and served as the film’s director of photography. The production of the project was by all accounts gruelling, but he has achieved something amazing to watch. He gives the nature of the land a presence that is a character all its own, a purity that is the background for violence and horror. He also makes a very right decision in keeping the cast very focussed to the African setting. It is fitting and possibly symbolic that the only white face we see in the film is that of a UN photographer, observing Agu briefly but unable to truly understand. Fukunaga’s visual sense also comes into play with the drug-fuelled sequences which are colour tinged with a kind of madness that invokes a sense of unreality in Agu’s very real experiences.
There are a lot of big films in the so-called “awards race” this year, and Beasts of No Nation proves itself to be a very strong and different contender, one that it is impossible to ignore.