Despite a talented cast and a compelling story, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film doesn’t hit home the way it should.
If I am telling this to you then you will think that I am some sort of beat or devil. And I am all of those things.
“A boy is a dangerous thing,” the Commandant tells his gathered army of soldiers when they first encounter Agu, a lost and terrified boy, in the African jungle. It’s a warning to not be fooled by the seeming innocence of childhood, and one that the Commandant and his forces should already know well. Agu is just one of a dozen or more child soldiers in the ranks of the militant group, and the evidence of the corruptibility of youth is already readily apparent. Other child soldiers draped in automatic weapons and bandoliers of bullets stare down at the Commandant as he speaks to the encircling crowd. They’re ragged with tattered clothes, scars, and hollow eyes, but visibly enraptured by the words of their leader as he works them into a frenzy. Agu remains terrified as the soldiers yell, stomp, and salute around him, not knowing that what he sees in these other boys is his own future. The Commandant knows the heart of darkness that dwells in every person, no matter how small, or at least their willingness to do terrible things in order to survive.
Beast of No Nation is Netflix’s first feature film after having branched into original content with House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and an ever-expanding roster of original series in the last few years. Netflix isn’t hedging any bets with their first foray into features, taking direct aim at award season with a difficult film about African child soldiers, helmed by Emmy-winning director Cary Joji Fukunaga and based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala. The result is a horrifying film whose stunning imagery is only matched by its savage story. It is very hard to watch.
Agu (Abraham Attah) is a young boy in a nameless, war-torn African country where peacekeeping forces act as a small buffer between his village and a raging civil war, but his world is destroyed when the government collapses and those forces use the village as a battleground. Agu escapes into the jungle to survive, and soon encounters the military force that will become his support group; family would be too strong of a word for this violent brigade.
There are multiple characters in the surrounding narrative, but the vast majority of them serve merely as cannon fodder for the film’s vast cruelty. The tragedies befalling Agu’s family and friends are used only for their effect on our protagonist. In a way their lives don’t matter at all. Only their deaths do. The film is largely the story of just two characters: Agu, and the Commandant leader of the battalion played by Idris Elba. Elba’s magnetic performance won’t surprise anyone familiar with his work on The Wire or as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. One of his greatest gifts is an ability to play a leader inspiring those around him. He cuts a powerful image in his star-insignia beret and dark sunglasses, and he speaks with the thunder and conviction of a fiery preacher. It’s easy to see why young boys with nothing else in the world would be willing to follow him. He’s both the closest thing to a father any of his soldiers have left, and a devil leading his children through hell on earth.
But make no mistake: Abraham Attah is the star of this film. The young Ghanan is mesmerizing as Agu, and it’s hard to image anyone else capable of bringing Agu to life the way he does. Perhaps it’s because this is Attah’s first film role and he has no idea of the heavy lifting he’s asked to do that he’s so capable as the boy soldier. His transformation from happy, playful boy to hardened soldier is a wonder. You hear the weariness in his voice. You see the pain in the way he holds himself. When he talks about knowing an old man’s worth of life experiences at such a young age, you can see the hollow exhaustion in his eyes. This would be a difficult role for a veteran actor, much less a fourteen-year-old boy. An Oscar nomination wouldn’t be out of the question.
When the Commandant directs Agu to kill a man captured in a convoy ambush, you can see the uncertainty play out across Agu’s face as he’s pulled apart by both a desire for revenge and the fear of committing such a gruesome act. Fukunaga’s camera slowly pans inward on both Agu and the face of his terrified prisoner, pairing the captured man’s terrified, pleading face with the sound of the Commandant’s forceful voice that this man is responsible for all of Agu’s pain. It’s a moment of claustrophobic intensity that’s a highpoint for both the director and his young star as Agu stands at the precipice of a decision that will etch itself on both his future and his soul.
Fukunaga is a master of visual storytelling, and he holds a unique position of being his own cinematographer. The visuals in the film are entirely his own design, and his striking images add an extra layer to the storytelling. Of particular note is a village raid when Agu is high on drugs. To showcase the boy’s altered state Fukunaga desaturates the film’s colors; the only colors left untouched are the reds which are substituted for the normal dense greens of the surrounding jungle. The result is a blood-colored landscape in a ghostly, ethereal world. Even though the film doesn’t explicitly mention that Agu and the other NDF troops are high, the explanation is perfectly clear.
Fukunaga (wearing yet another hat as the film’s screenwriter) makes the curious decision to leave the film’s setting and central conflict unnamed. He’s following the same template as the source novel in that regard, and it’s likely in an attempt to make his character representative of the many children forced into war as soldiers across the African continent, but it robs the film of a specificity that would make it ring truer. Despite his incredible performance, it’s too much to ask Attah to embody thousands of children. Paired with the generic “tragic losses” in Agu’s life, it leaves the story far too open-ended and lacking an unambiguous humanity.
It’s a huge loss for the film. Despite all of Fukunaga’s abilities and the incredible cast at his disposal, the film falls flat in its third act when it’s pacing drags under the lull of political maneuvering and a military stalemate. Fukunaga’s aim is to show the horrors of war forced upon a child, and his film is so effective in its first half that eventually the film’s tragedies exhaust the viewer the same as they do Agu. It’s a powerful, visceral film, but it hews too close to examining the stylized depiction of a war rather than showing us the greater damage that such bloodshed creates.