We often see the dehumanising effects of war observed in film; the loss of one’s innocence through unimaginable and uncharacteristic actions or events. However, in such settings, rarely is this gaze cast upon the most intrinsic form of innocence – childhood.
Beasts of No Nation follows the transformation – or corruption, rather – of young Agu (Abraham Attah) from schoolboy to child soldier in his war-torn West African home country. It’s an eye-opening cinematic experience that shines a light on an issue we would usually refrain from thinking about.
The West African country is purposefully unnamed; an otherwise distracting and unnecessary aspect, given the film’s focus on character. Beasts of No Nation instead plays on our instinctual desire to protect children from violence and depravity, to preserve the innocence of our youth. Intentionally depicting children in these circumstances should be provocative, regardless of locality.
Agu’s world is shattered by bloodshed and cruelty; he witnesses, partakes in and is subjected to actions no child should have to experience in their lifetime. Despite how he and those in similar conditions may be judged for their wrongdoings, the film is resolute in its careful portrayal of Agu as a victim of circumstance and of influence.
Such influence comes in the form of a rebel army chieftain who captures Agu, forcing him to fight alongside a battalion of child soldiers. Known only as the Commandant (Idris Elba), he takes Agu under his wing, becoming a revered paternal figure. He easily manipulates Agu, empowering him with a sense of purpose and a tool of retribution – a machine gun. “A boy has fingers to pull a trigger… a boy is very, very dangerous”, the Commandant says.
Elba is brilliant as the weary, egotistical, and battle-hardened Commandant, delivering a complex villainous performance. For Agu and the audience alike, the Commandant is not initially a focus of contempt with Elba’s intimidating yet charismatic poise providing effective delusion, despite being met with precaution. However, as seen through Agu’s perspective, it only takes a few unsavoury encounters to see through his fatherly pretence.
However, it’s newcomer Abraham Attah that transcends all expectations here, recruited from the streets of Ghana to steer the film. He brings a raw energy and emotional authenticity to his performance that feels wise beyond his years, and ultimately crucial for his character’s maturation. He is heart-breakingly real in the film’s final moments, delivering a moving lament, constitutive to the film’s core message.
Despite its sobering subject matter, Beasts of No Nation is as poetic as it is brutally realistic. Writer-director-cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga leavens his excellent study with impressionistic acuity, imbuing the film with an intoxicating visual richness, akin to similar lyrical warfare depictions like The Thin Red Line.
In a minor criticism, an absence of dramatic tension in favour of this meditative tone at times mutes the film’s emotional impact, while exposing the overlong runtime. Rarely does any real danger atone for the violence of the brief battle sequences, with only the film’s ingrained threat to childhood innocence providing some dramatic heft.
The film was chosen as Netflix’s spearhead entry into the original feature film game. Beasts of No Nation is probably best viewed in a cinema, but a HD stream on a good quality home television should suffice. While the US received a limited theatrical release, currently Netflix is the best place to catch this powerful film in Australia.
However you consume it, Beasts of No Nation remains a tenacious and haunting filmic expression that deserves to be experienced.