Beasts of No Nation is a film about the brutality of humanity, but it begins in the most innocent of ways. The boys cajole a group of soldiers and pay them to act on their “Imagination T.V.” (which in reality is just a hollowed out old T.V.) It’s hard to fathom that a movie starting with such exuberance and innocence could quickly turn into a nightmare from which the audience can’t wake.
Quickly orphaned by war as his family is massacred, Agu (Abraham Attah) is captured and told he’s going to be a soldier in Commandant’s (Idris Elba) army. It’s hard to digest the very real notion of an innocent transforming into a cold blooded killer, but as we soon learn, the line between innocence and evil is as thin as paper. Agu initially describes himself as “a good boy from a good family” and he seems harmless at first – a rail thin preadolescent whose love of malice seems to be reserved for pranks towards his older brother. However, Commandant views Agu in a completely different light. “A boy is a dangerous thing,” he states to his fighters, some no more that twelve years old. Commandant views Agu as not a boy, but a vessel of destruction that will serve him well in battle.
Beasts of No Nation doesn’t follow a traditional plotline and instead follows a set of events which gives the movie a more adolescent point of view. This structure makes sense as the story is told through the eyes and narration of Agu. Cary Fukunaga directed, wrote, and was the cinematographer on this picture and it seems that his one focus was making sure we felt what Agu felt. When Agu anguished, so did we. When Agu was enraged, so were we. It’s a roller coaster of emotions that that punches you in the gut. Even with this being the case, Beasts of No Nation was not emotionally exploitative; if anything, you felt empathy to everyone who was involved in this senseless war.
Fukunaga’s cinematography is “run and gun,” and it works brilliantly. Being that this film centers more on events than a set storyline, catching the pace and the sheer savagery of war was essential to the success of the film. Sometimes one little decision can make a huge impact on the overall quality of the picture. Fukunaga used the same technique when he shot season one of True Detective and achieved a similar result just by amplifying the pacing. Fukunaga also uses the right amount of voiceover throughout the film. It’s important to remember this experience is through the eyes of a child, so hearing Agu’s innermost thoughts is crucial to the film’s overall quality.
Idris Elba’s performance as the Commandant is a force of nature. His portrayal was extraordinarily rich in nuance and seductive psychosis that it’s easy to understand why all of those children would die for their Commandant. Agu tries to fight being molded into a killer because of his moral compass, but a child can only hold out for so long. It’s sad, but it speaks to the power Commandant holds. As much as Commandant wants the children to believe he is only training them for glory, it’s easy to look through the vainglorious cracks in his character and see him for the monster that he is.
As Agu, Abraham Attah’s was captivating from beginning to end. Attah’s transformative performance is not only at the heart of this film, but it could be argued that he outperformed Idris Elba. For those who are expecting a happy ending for Agu, that would be settling for a simply Hollywood ending. His ending is honest, true, and a sign of the times in that part of the world. Beasts of No Nation is scintillating from start to finish, the type of film that is deeply impactful no matter how brutal it might be.