War is hell. The idea has been promoted before and here it is presented once again. This time through a series harrowing images that remain in the mind’s eye well after this combat film is over. The tale concerns Agu (Abraham Attah), a young West African boy affected by an unnamed civil war raging in his country. His mother and sisters escape, but his father is shot and killed. Agu is essentially kidnapped by militants who coerce him to join their rebel force. Their mercenary unit is headed up by a megalomaniacal leader only referred to as Commandant (Idris Elba).
Agu’s awareness of evil expands as the conflict rages on. This conversion forms the narrative in the capable hands of newcomer Abraham Attah. He is fascinating, both thoughtful and sincere. It’s a revelatory performance and the most compelling reason to discuss the picture. Idris Elba as the Commandant is also effective as an intimidating presence overseeing this rag tag team of soldiers. His dominant authority over these young men and boys as he molds them into soldiers is chilling. As the full extent of his predatory abuse is revealed, he becomes an even more reprehensible individual. The pessimism inherent in the perspective adheres close to convention. It is his meeting with the Supreme Commander (Jude Akuwudike) where the limits of the Commandant’s power are revealed. This is where the script finally explores something slightly more innovative.
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga has shown a facility with different genres. He has gone from the Mexican gangland adventure Sin Nombre to an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This time he’s adapting another book, the 2005 debut novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala. Little detail is given as to what conflict this is and for what exactly are these various warring factions fighting. The lack of political context or commentary is a bit of a misstep in a chronicle about people who do indeed pick sides. Our protagonist, however doesn’t pick a side. He’s merely swept up into the maelstrom of violence. The saga revels in one war crime after another. The way people intellectually justify their point of view is clearly not the point. Beasts of No Nation is about a child’s loss of innocence. Not a novel idea, but at least one presented with a pair of laudable performances.
Note: Beasts of No Nation debuted simultaneously on Netflix and to theaters in limited release. It’s a tough watch particularly at a punishing 2 hours 17 minutes. The temptation to break away from this bleak story is pretty high. I admittedly did not see this in one sitting. I do consider my wavering desire to finish the movie, relevant. Definitely more of an immersive experience uninterrupted in a theater.