As far removed from light entertainment as imaginable, the Netflix-produced Beasts of No Nation stars the young Abraham Attah as Agu, a preadolescent boy living in an unnamed African country. As his village is ravaged by the ongoing war in the country, Agu finds himself without a family, on the run in the jungle; as heavy-hitting a start as just about any film I’ve seen this year.
The real hell only appears, though, once Idris Elba’s Commandant enters the story. His rebel Native Defense Force finds Agu in the jungle and immediately forces him to join. What follows is an Apocalypse Now-esque journey through the absolute worst of humanity, portrayed through the series of atrocities committed by the NDF, including the rapidly dehumanised Agu.
Elba’s Commandant is an almost satanic creation, unrelenting in his brutality, which he infects his rebels with, through his sermon-like speeches. Yet Elba imbues him with a relatability and immediacy that borders on the unnerving.
Interjected into the narrative is a touching voice-over narration delivered in a poetically naïve manner by Attah’s Agu. Detailing how he becomes aware of his own loss of innocence through the story’s unfolding, you are exposed to the horrors of war not with blood and cruelty (of which there is still plenty here, mind you), but through the slow unravelling of a soul coming to terms with its own sins.
Director/writer/cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga’s work is strong on all fronts, especially as reportedly he stepped in last-minute to take over cinematography duties. His directorial skill is most prominent through his strong work on Attah’s performance and channelling Idris Elba into his most imposing self. Meanwhile, his writing is highlighted through the composition of scenes and Agu’s evolving relationships with the mute Strika, and an admirable restraint in resorting to melodramatic solutions, opting instead for the underplayed.
And the cinematography and editing is frequently brilliant, not least in a particular scene when the film’s whole colour palette transforms, bringing us into the protagonist’s mind on a very subjective level.
Its subject material is also especially potent today, with strikes on Syria and mass refugee migration between countries and continents, as it portrays in no uncertain terms the devastating effects war has on ordinary people.
Beasts of No Nation is not light watching, definitely not to be watched if even slightly tired or distracted. And if it were to be boiled down to a single line – a difficult and somewhat unfair task for such a layered film – it would probably be that here we have something of an Apocalypse Now of child soldiers.
Viewing recommendation: Watch