War-torn countries and ferocious fighting are often sugar-coated or downplayed in an attempt to make them more palatable to the masses. War is not pretty, and to minimize its true scope and bloodshed takes away the real effects that come from it. Beasts of No Nation doesn’t care about your feelings or your low tolerance for gore because it will present the reality of these types of situations one way or another.
Beasts of No Nation tells a broad story about the brutality of growing up during a civil war. It might be vague on factual details, but meticulous in its attention to visual storytelling. Writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga used the beautiful and often hypnotic natural landscapes to heighten the atrocities that happened in them. From the copper clay trenches to the captivating jungles that provide a false sense of security, Fukunaga uses natural elements and expert camerawork to visually create the loss of innocence and an atmosphere of intimidation. Although this was a Netflix release, and the temptation of convenience to view this on a smaller screen is strong, Fukunaga’s style greatly benefits from a movie theater sized screen.
The story is not unlike one we may have heard before, with the biggest difference being that Fukunaga chose when to force us to confront the graphic cruelty and the perfect moments to shy away from it. Beasts of No Nation is much less about the specificity of the events that occurred in West Africa, but a greater character study of similar events that happen in areas all around the world. The film begins with neutral people forced to choose a side during a civil war between two equally violent groups. Not choosing a side is tantamount to choosing the opposing side of one group and results in death. From this death, families are scattered and children are orphaned, forcing them to find any way to survive. That is when a sovereign father figure emerges to fill the vacuum and conscripts the recently traumatized orphans with promises of survival and a vague promise of being part of a new family.
At no point while watching the film does any of it seem unnatural or disingenuous. Every action taken, or decision made, feels like an organic escalation resulting from past events. We become a witness to the subtle psychological brainwashing of the youth through chanting, repetition, and positive reinforcement. Thanks to Fukunaga’s camera work, we constantly feel like we are part of the film, making the events that much more devastating. We see the many forms of manipulation and abuse and understand how they are used to create unwilling, but obedient soldiers. One of the most powerful comparisons the film shows is the stark juxtaposition of the children as merciless killers one moment, and normal children playing the next.
Beyond the story of the effects of war on the youth, this film is also an unsettling coming-of-age story about how a child was forced to grow exponentially faster than any child should ever have to. Main character Agu starts the film as a carefree boy but unwillingly reaches mental adulthood before he’s even hit puberty. First-time actor Abraham Attah, who plays Agu, delivers a tour de force debut performance. Through his skill, Agu comes to life, especially when parts of his are dying. Even if he wasn’t narrating his thoughts and emotions, we would be able to clearly read them from his expressions and mannerisms alone. You can forgive the heavy-handed approach done by the overarching narrative because of the phenomenal performances, and Idris Elba’s dynamic performance is no exception. His Commandant was masterfully realized using Elba’s natural charm and authoritative command of the screen and army.
Beasts of No Nation treads familiar territory, but with an uncompromising candidness that feels honest and bereft of any exaggeration. Aside from the excellent performances by Attah and Elba, and the superb direction of Fukunaga, this film greatly benefits from its earnest look into the true heart of darkness that many of us only glimpse in the news. Out of all the bleak and dismal situations in the film, there is still a glimmer of light and redemption at the end of it. That’s a message that is as important as any other one we’ve encountered up to that point in the film. Possibly even the most important.
RATING: ★★★★★★★★ (8/10 stars)