Most standard war movies incorporate the violence of combat into their narratives, though it is the more substantial war films that also put emphasis on the psychological trauma associated with warfare. Taking this into account, I find it strange that while movies featuring combatants fall under the description of “war movie”, films which focus on the victims or those directly affected by the outcomes and aftermath of war are often deprived of the same title. In this regard, Beasts of No Nation is an excellent war film which manages to explore these different facets of warfare, tying them together into a fierce and gripping narrative about the experiences of a child soldier in Africa.
Beasts of No Nation tells the story of Agu (played by newcomer Abraham Attah), a clever and spirited young boy from a good family in an unnamed African country that is being enveloped by factional conflict. The flames of war soon erupt at his doorstep, forcing Agu to separate from his mother and sister who are sent to a refugee camp. The tragedy compounds as he witnesses the murder of his remaining family at the hands of the military Junta known as the NRC. Forced to run into the bush all alone, he is snatched up by a band of “freedom fighters” known as the NDF and forced into the fold of rag-tag soldiers in order to survive.
The leader of the fighters is The Commandant, played by the glorious Idris Elba in yet another career defining role. Elba uses facets from other characters throughout his oeuvre and melds them into The Commandant to great effect; he exudes nobility and magnetic charisma, while also at times being menacing, unhinged, and downright vile. In one scene he is a warrior shaman, riling up soldiers by laying hands on them like a priest imbuing the holy ghost, after which he follows them into battle unarmed and waving a wand of animal fur, seemingly warding off bullets like evil spirits as he strides into victory. In another scene, we see him goading Agu into killing what is likely an innocent man by way of a gruesome machete attack, just one of many tragic moments in which Agu’s innocence is lost forever.
Although Elba is the marquis actor of the picture, all the novice actors that surround him do very impressive work. Abraham Attah was found locally in Ghana during one of many cast scoutings, and he is truly a remarkable find. There is nothing ostentatious about his performance, but by the end of the film he truly has the presence of a young man far beyond his years, witness to and executor of unspeakable horrors. The other supporting characters that make up The Commandant’s lieutenants bolster what in normal war movies would be nameless squad member archetypes. Emmanuel "King Kong" Nii Adom Quaye is terrific as the young soldier Strika, manifesting terrorizing cold-blooded ferocity while also revealing himself to be a compassionate and empathetic character. Other actors like Kurt Egyiawan as 2-IC (as in “second in command”) and Teibu Owusu Achcampong as Preacher perform well, able to stand alongside Elba in their many scenes together. And though his role was slight, Annointed Wesseh as Tripod is one of my personal favorite gonzo warrior characters ever, up there with Fury Road’s Doof warrior; Tripod stalks the battlefield stark naked, with nothing but tribal accoutrements and his FN MAG machine gun (and when you see the other heat he is packing, the reason for his nickname will be plainly evident).
There is quite a bit of horror and misery throughout the film, but Cary Fukunaga proves once again how adept he is at making beautiful imagery out of even the dourest of subject matter. The colors of the jungle, city backgrounds, trenches and war torn landscapes are lush and popping, and there is masterfully evocative use of light and shadow. One scene of note comes when Agu and his cohorts, under the influence of the powerful narcotic concoction Brown-Brown, lay siege to a town in a psychedelic mania of violence. A color filter is applied to the camera that makes the green jungle appear in bright alien flourishes of pink and magenta, likely an homage/reference to the award winning war photography of Richard Mosse, who used Aerochrome infrared film to take striking images of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Fukunga also constructs another centerpiece tracking shot, but what unfolds during the scene is perhaps the harshest and most emotionally difficult to watch in the entire film. One could criticize this scene as crossing the line into violent fetishism, but I think the parallel between the ethereal angelic fluidity of the camera movement and the most wretched actions of humanity being captured by said camera emphasizes the true tragedy of child soldiers like no other film has ever done.
Building on that that point, a larger criticism that could be levied against Beasts of No Nation is the vague ambiguity of where and when this film takes place. Some may feel that the lack of specificity plays down real world atrocities that have taken or are still taking place in African nations suffering the ravages of war. Some might say that this lack of distinction marginalizes true stories that need to be told and perpetuates the stereotypical view about the entirety of Africa being a war torn god-forsaken land of savages. However, that is not the goal of this particular film; this is not Hotel Rwanda or The Last King of Scotland. This is a character piece war film focused on what war does to the psyche, in the realm of The Hurt Locker or the Thin Red Line. Agu’s arc is honestly one of the finest contemporary explorations of post-traumatic stress developed from warfare out there, and any attempt to incorporate a ham-fisted political message into it would only serve to dilute both aims.
That it focuses uniquely on the child soldier all at once brings a unique situation to light while approaching it with a lens of empathy that makes such an absurd situation relatable and understandable to the common viewer. The alphabet soup of named factions and link diagram of allegiances and borders that are overheard in the film are as confusing and meaningless to Agu as they are to the viewer. They don’t matter in the bigger picture because what matters is Agu and the children like him. This film is not meant to pay lip service to what would be trumped-up charitable outrage like the Kony 2012 movement. This film is meant to put an honest to god face to the tragedy and make you understand very simply and concisely how these things come to pass. Agu is indoctrinated into the merciless life of a soldier against his will, but when you remember how brutally his family is taken from him and the charismatic power wielded by The Commandant, you understand why he accepts his fate so readily. Seeing Agu chant the NDF battle cry and soldiers’ hymns immediately bring to mind young men like myself in boot camp, not long after the events of 9/11, reciting the Army Creed and screaming cadences and mantras at the top of our lungs under the harshest drills. We may be miles apart and worlds away culturally, but these kinds of powerfully manipulative atmospheres are universal.
The press and promotion for this film has focused as much on its status as a flagship Netflix original presentation with a simultaneous theater release as they have focused on the content of the film itself. As such, I felt I should make mention of my viewing experience. Overall, it was remarkable to have such a high quality piece of art available immediately upon release to view on my couch, not having to drive six hours to the nearest big city or go all the way across the Canadian border to view it in theaters. And after the whole Star Wars ticket debacle, it’s great to know I can see a brand new feature film without any ticketing/transaction hassle. In turn, while Fukunaga has stated explicitly that he believes everyone should see this film in theaters as it was meant to be (and believe, me everyone absolutely should at the soonest opportunity), he knows that it’s just as important to an artist for their art to be seen in the first place by whatever means possible. That said, the Netflix stream on my PlayStation 3 froze no less than 4 times during my viewing. While streaming interruptions aren’t unusual, it did detract from what is supposed to be a stress-free at home theater experience at your own leisure. On the theater release side of things, the box office draw was pretty dismal, with only around $50K earned from 30 theaters nationwide.
That box office figure may ultimately be of no consequence, however, as the symbolic statement about the alternate means of finding funding and backing for movies has been made, along with putting the name in the top hat that is Academy Award consideration. And make no mistake, there are multiple “Best of the Year” elements all up in this movie. Beasts of No Nation is high caliber cinema, a film which everyone should experience no matter the device or medium through which they chose to view it.