A Leader Who Commands Respect and Fear, And A Young Boy Who Trains To Become A Child Soldier. A Brutal Tale of Child Soldiers in Africa.
BEASTS OF NO NATION” is based on the highly acclaimed novel by Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala. It brings to life the gripping tale of Agu, a child soldier torn from his family, is forced to join a unit of mercenary group and to fight when civil war engulfs his West African country,. Not only must Agu face the death of his father and disappearance of his mother and sister, but must also join a life of violence and brutality.
THE LINE BETWEEN INNOCENCE AND EVIL IS THINNER THAN THE BLADE OF A MACHETE.
“A boy is a dangerous thing,” says the Commandant, who leads an army of young soldiers fighting a civil war in an unspecified West African country. He’s talking about Agu, a newly captured prisoner and also, potentially, a fresh recruit, who has fled into the forest hoping to escape the violence that has consumed his hometown. Rather than dismiss or kill him, the Commandant instructs his charges to respect Agu’s potential.
Agu is numbed by horror and hardened by the brutality he has witnessed and perpetrated. The Commandant (Idris Elba) trains him and his comrades to be “warriors,” which is to say war criminals. The war-ravaged nation remains unnamed. But the director Cary Fukunaga does offer a a complex inquiry into the psychology of power and the emotional logic of total war. When the Commandant finds him, Agu has lost his friends, his family, his home and any feeling of security he might have had. Militia life offers a ready-made set of substitutes. He befriends another very young fighter, called Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), who never speaks. Teenage soldiers like 2nd I-C (Kurt Egyiawan) become his surrogate older brothers.
The Commandant is a demonic father figure, a seducer and a predator who rules his young charges less through fear than through the motivational grandiosity of a football coach. But gradually we also see his weakness, his desperation and his status as a pawn in a much larger military and geopolitical game.
BEASTS OF NO NATION is visually striking and uses lush green locations as a backdrop as a counterpoint to the brutal scenes of conflict and desperation. It is somewhat reminiscent of a recent award winner CHE by Steven Soderberg in its style of visual representation and photographic style. It is written and directed by Cary Fukunaga, who achieved success with films such as Jane Eyre and Sin Nombre, and his Emmy-winning television work on the first season of True Detective. Fukunaga’s greatest achievement is how he communicates the hopelessness of Agu’s situation without shying away from the evil acts he eventually commits. He wants to investigate the broader emotional and spiritual damage suffered by the world’s estimated hundreds of thousands of child soldiers. A voice-over by Agu keeps viewers in his mindset, never letting go of his adolescent language and viewpoint, even while he murders strangers on command.
This is not easy viewing. The film focuses more on the business of indoctrination than the details of whatever conflict Agu is involved in. Like the book, it does not turn away from the atrocities they commit, it also doesn’t allow you to forget that they’re children. The ambiguity of the plot and country location actually succeeds in telling a more universal story. The unnamed village in West Africa, shattered by the incursion of a larger civil war could well be reminiscent of events in Sierra Leone, Liberia, or Nigeria.
He brings study of manipulation and manufactured loyalty with an unsettling degree of visual richness and lush natural detail, creating a war film that also bring to mind those as haunting as “Paths of Glory” or “Apocalypse Now,” and just as surely grounded in the particular brutalities of its setting. The the echoes of Joseph Kony in Uganda to the daily atrocities of ISIS, Boko Haram or Mexican drug cartels are almost unmissable.
Newcomer Abraham Attah gives a stunning portrayal of Agu, while Edris Elba dominates the screen in the role of Commandant, a warlord who takes in Agu and instructs him in the ways of war. Swaggering behind a pair of dark aviator sunglasses and a haze of narcotic smoke, Elba exudes equal parts menace and slithering charm.
“Beasts of No Nation” is the first fictional feature distributed by Netflix, which makes it something of a milestone in the continued collapse of the already rickety distinction between movies made to be shown in theaters and those destined for online streaming.