Beasts of No Nation is a war film written, directed, and shot by Cary Joji Fukunaga. The screenplay is adapted from the 2005 book of the same name by author Uzodinma Iweala. The film tells the story of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy in West Africa who watches as his family is ripped apart from him by terrorizing militants. After, Agu himself is recruited into an army of rebels, comprised mostly of child soldiers, by the vicious leader Commandant.
This film is a harrowing tale of war in an unnamed West African country that is shot through a perspective that is gripping and altogether unrelenting. Cary Joji Fukunaga, the mastermind behind the first season of HBO’s True Detective, is absolutely brilliant in his execution of this film. Although I have not read the source material, the research I have done indicates that the dialogue in it is linguistically stunning and loquaciously powerful. Therefore, it is patently obvious Fukunaga made sure to utilize this style in his script, as evidenced by Agu’s voiceover depictions of the brutally realistic scenes controlling his life at any given moment throughout the film.
Fukunaga’s direction is as good as any you’ll see, getting the most out of his actors, scene after scene after scene. The fact that newcomer Abraham Attah conveys one of the most raw but affecting performances of the year is due in large part to Fukunaga, who clearly succeeded in bringing out all of the potential Attah had deep down to give. Fukunaga’s work on the film is exquisite, but considering he took over seven years to create this film, his hard work paid off in a big way.
The stars of the film are its main actors: Idris Elba as The Commandant and Abraham Attah as Agu. The character arcs for both Agu and Commandant are incredibly diverse, but they both share a like-transformation in many ways, too. Agu watches his family murdered by African militants. In a matter of moments, his innocence is stripped from him. He runs terrified, sobbing all the while. What was seen cannot be undone, and those experiences shaped who Agu would become throughout the rest of the film. When he meets Commandant and his “warriors” (which we quickly learn are more like “war criminals”), he finds natural replacements for those that he lost. The brooding Commandant becomes his father figure. The young Strika, a boy who does not speak, becomes his new best friend. In this new circle, Agu finds trust again. And it is that trust that convinces Agu it is okay to kill and terrorize upon Commandant’s orders. Atrocities are committed, but luckily the film never loses focus of the fact that these soldiers are still, at their very core, children—Attah’s brilliant performance delineates Agu’s complex journey with dynamism.
Idris Elba’s Commandant, however, is the best part of the film for me. Stringer Bell (Elba’s character from HBO’s The Wire) and DCI John Luther (his character from the BBC series Luther) are two of my all-time favorite TV characters, and a lot of that has to do with Elba’s first-class acting abilities. Few actors can give you chills with simply a look—Idris Elba can and does often, especially in Beasts. When we meet The Commandant, we view him just as Agu does—a charismatic, but menacing leader. He is scary, but he is caring; he is sickening, yet he is insightful. Commandant is a larger-than-life figure, but the film hits its emotional stride when we learn that this character is simply a pawn in another’s game of chess. I felt for Commandant at times. In masterful, although rare, instances, we see a vulnerable side to Commandant; a side not readily accessible to his fellow soldiers. Yet at other times, I despised him—he is a predator and a master manipulator. No matter the point in the movie and no matter the circumstances, Idris Elba portrays his character so perfectly that you have to feel something, whether good or bad. Elba’s performances require a unique gravitas, and in Beasts of No Nation, he shows us what power can do to a man.
Beasts of No Nation is movie-streaming giant Netflix’s first venture into the exclusive distribution of feature films. Although it was a bit odd to watch this movie on its worldwide release date from the confines of my own personal couch, I liked the experience. I still value seeing a lot of films in theaters because I believe that is the medium by which we were always meant to see them. For many comedies or basic dramas, a home viewing as an initial viewing is perfectly fine for me. But war and action films still have a place in the theater. So although I applaud Netflix’s endeavor into exclusive film distribution, and although I believe this is the direction the industry is headed into some time in the near future, it cannot solely replace a film lover’s live, in-seat experience at his or her local movie theater. Beasts of No Nation is not rated.
Beasts of No Nation trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xb9Ty-1frw
Academy Award nominations for Beasts of No Nation:
Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2015:
15. The Martian