A harrowing descent into a modern-day heart of darkness, Beasts of No Nation channels Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now for its tale of one child’s recruitment into an African rebel battalion. Adapting Uzodinma Iweala’s novel with fearsome intimacy, writer/director Cary Fukunaga depicts his unidentified African setting as a mixture of lushly green forests, bullet-shattered villages and mist-enshrouded horizons—the last of which is due, at least in part, to the fires that rage throughout the countryside. Those conflagrations are the result of a conflict between government and revolutionary forces, the specifics of which the film, like its precise locale, leaves more or less vague. Fukunaga’s film is thus mired in a hazy, nightmarish fugue of violence and degradation, the director presenting a landscape of hellish depravity and amorality through the eyes of one young boy unwittingly swept up in his nation’s insanity.
Beasts of No Nation opens with snapshots of adolescent Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah) going about his day-to-day in a town seemingly shielded by U.N forces from the civil war raging outside its borders. As it does during later sequences of chaos and madness, Fukunaga’s camera sticks closely to Agu in these early passages. We watch the kid trying to sell a hollowed-out television to skeptical soldiers, goofing around with his horny older brother (Francis Weddey), and spying on his mother (Ama K. Abebrese) and local-leader father (Kobina Amissah-Sam) as they debate how to respond to the bloodshed nearing their doorstep. Using proximity to his characters to generate immediate empathy, the director casts Agu inside these vignettes as an innocent learning to confront the adult world through a mixture of good-natured mischievousness and sly attentiveness.
Agu’s life is forever upended when government forces raid his village, forcing his mother and youngest siblings to flee by car, and his father, oldest brother, and invalid grandfather to remain behind, where they’re soon captured. All but Agu are brutally executed. Narrowly escaping death, Agu becomes a babe lost in the woods until he’s discovered by the insurgent forces of Commandant (Idris Elba), a charismatic military leader whose men are, for the most part, boys who’ve been brainwashed into becoming ruthless, animalistic killers. From low-angles, framing his crotch in close-up alongside Agu’s face, Fukunaga conveys the menacing charisma and power of Commandant, who soon takes Agu under his wing—alongside a mute young bodyguard named Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adaom Quaye) who’ll later become Agu’s friend—and, in the process, transforms into the boy’s surrogate (if demonic) father.
Culminating with Agu traversing a water-filled trench that resembles a canyon of Hades, and then ending on a note of immensely tempered hopefulness, Beasts of No Nation uses narration to intermittently give voice to Agu’s inner thoughts—but articulates most of its tragedy via his large, deep eyes. In a compelling debut performance, Attah suggests, in silent glances and sudden gestures, the means by which Agu willingly accepts his debasement: first, out of an angry desire for vengeance, and then because it’s his only apparent means of survival. His character functions as the tonal opposite of Elba’s Commandant, a man of larger-than-life wickedness who vacillates at a moment’s notice between angry speechifying, plaintive sermonizing, and insidious cooing. A Kurtz-like figure whose mounting megalomania eventually reveals his every word to be a lie, Elba’s Commandant proves to be a beast of a most epic sort, though what’s ultimately most unforgettable about Fukunaga’s monster movie is its sympathy for the ruination of its child-soldier devils.
A coming-of-age saga twisted into unholy form, Beasts of No Nation eschews undue melodramatic manipulations (and avoids romanticizing its perversions) in charting Agu’s maturation into a pitiless soldier. That process first peaks when he follows Commandant’s orders to strike a prisoner dead with a machete chop to the head, and then again when he numbly executes a woman being raped by his comrades. The latter comes at the tail end of a lengthy single-take that, in terms of virtuosity, surpasses the one Fukunaga orchestrated during his stint helming season one of HBO’s True Detective, and stunningly captures the sheer, anarchic brutality of Agu’s circumstances. Refusing to shy away from combat’s barbarism, the film offers a stark view of African warfare as a barrage of borderline-hallucinatory horrors, which soon become so pervasive—and thus so easily rationalized—that they infect not only Agu’s mind, but his soul too.
Director: Cary Fukunaga
Writer: Cary Fukunaga (screenplay); Uzodinma Iweala (novel)
Starring: Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Ama K. Abebrese, Kobina Amissah-Sam, Emmanuel Nii Adaom Quaye
Release Date: October 16, 2015 (Netflix)