As the title would suggest, Beasts of No Nation is not a film about issues, or a particular issue. Writer/Director/Cinematographer Cary Fukunaga delivers a picture free of the didactic moralizing and manipulation that clutters such issue films. Agu (Abraham Attah, pictured above) is living relatively comfortably in a buffer zone town still untouched by the civil war ravaging the unnamed West African country. Fukunaga is to be applauded for setting up this boy’s family life and his strong relationship with his family, particularly his older brother, so quickly before Agu’s relative stability is ripped away from him swiftly, and he soon finds himself at the behest of a battalion of rebel troops led by the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba).
Agu is effectively the audience, and we in the audience are Agu, with Attah’s stunning performance bridging the gap and bringing us in. Agu does not seem to understand, or care, what the acronyms stand for. The Commandant tells him he is fighting those who murdered his brother and father, and soon Agu falls under Commandant’s spell. Beasts‘ middle hour often feels like its caught in a surreal haze, much like latter sections in Apocalypse Now, its beginning marked by Agu’s murder of a supposed enemy soldier, filmed underneath the boy as he swings his machete up and down in slow motion. The entire 2 hours and 15 minutes are a tough watch (Agu is 11 years old, and many of his fellow soldiers are the same age) but Fukunaga lulls us into this haze along with Agu until the bullets and the fighting and the Commandant’s sadism no longer shock us or him in this place where “God isn’t listening.”
Elba’s enormous screen presence is turned on its head here. His Commandant is vile and despicable, and Elba’s charisma convinces us of this man’s effectiveness as a recruiter and warlord. As truly evil as the Commandant is, Fukunaga and Elba reveal a man as tortured and mentally disfigured by the war as anyone. Ultimately, Beasts of No Nation is a movie about the human cost of war, capturing the humanity slowly seeping out of Agu until even the cold blooded execution of a man just to his right doesn’t interrupt his playful joking with a friend. Unlike many war films, however, Beasts finds a true glimmer of hope in its final images. It’s a human film with war as its subject, not a war film with human subjects.
★★★★ out of 5