Against unfathomable circumstances, a boy seeks happiness. Netflix’s latest distribution experiment, Beasts of No Nation, may have received universal scorn from the major American theater chains, but the film has nevertheless benefited tremendously from online support and general critical adoration. Featuring an astounding breakout performance from the young Abraham Attah (for which he received the Venice Film Festival’s Marcello Mastroianni Award), Cary Fukunaga’s latest deals blow after emotional blow in its pursuit to understand a stream of incomprehensible atrocities.
Agu (Attah) is a creative, and otherwise completely normal, little boy. Living in a village surrounded by war, he narrates as we watch his family try to escape the incoming clash between the army and rebel militia. Agu’s mother is sent to the city with the youngest children, while Agu, his father and older brother are left to defend their family’s ancestral home. The joint brutality of the rebel forces and the supposedly-helpful army is made immediately apparent, as a group of men (running from rebel marauders) are mistaken for looters and summarily executed. Watching his father and brother killed with such cold indifference leaves Agu alone and afraid — until he is picked up by a group of rebels, led by the stoic Commandant (Idris Elba). Trained as a child soldier and forced to endure the purest imaginable form of hell on earth, Agu becomes an unrecognizable monster living inside the body of a little boy.
Absolutely devastating in its blunt portrayal of African civil wars, Beasts of No Nation packs so burdensome an emotional punch that I was left in stunned detachment, unable to cope with much of what I was experiencing. Fukunaga is at his best when he leaves Agu to quiet reflection, instead of bombarding the audience with an unceasing barrage of horror and misery. As a viewer from a privileged first-world country, I understand the need to “educate” viewers on war-crimes in remote, media-ignored parts of the globe, but constrained to a constant state of abhorrence, I found myself numbed to what I was watching. Perhaps unsure as to whether Attah’s acting abilities could support the emotional weight of the film, Fukunaga’s visceral onslaught ensures an understanding of the terror while forcing a mental disconnect to what is being shown. Viewers who actually attempt to comprehend Agu’s situation can only expect to find utter despair. Underlining this sense of disengagement is the film’s representation of an apathetic God. Deeply religious, the soldiers and villagers pray for an end to their turmoil and struggle, yet they are met with an unmitigated silence. The God found in Beasts of No Nation is a Bergman-esque God, existing entirely in the words and minds of imperfect men.
Apart from the grand scale of production, and a few magnificent shots (Paths of Glory‘s famous trench shot has rarely been so adeptly reconstructed), the soul of Beasts of No Nation is undoubtedly Abraham Attah. Bringing a forlorn energy to Agu, Attah’s seamless fusion of innocence and awareness advocate an understanding of the character while largely avoiding any obligations to pity him. Through his solemn narration, Attah (on behalf of Fukunaga’s screenplay) displays a removal from his actions, a product of a youthful inability to comprehend the situation. A tender connection he shares with fellow soldier Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) becomes the most penetrating glimpse into the life of a child soldier Beasts has to offer. Brought together by physical and emotional pain, Agu and Strika’s relationship evolves into their reason to live. Their interactions are largely nonverbal, but each moment delivers more feeling than any of the film’s violent displays could hope to elicit. Though he takes a back seat to Attah, Elba’s indelible talent and star power still brings a definitive, menacing life to the film (and assuredly drew in a large chunk of the film’s audience). A surrogate father to a battalion of children and aimless men, Elba’s Commandant is as sickeningly charming as he is coldly manipulating. Part role model, part confidence man, Elba draws in Attah’s Agu until he has no choice but to surrender to a life of blind rage.
It is impossible not to be emotionally affected by Beasts of No Nation; the subject matter is simply too authentic and harrowing to have any other effect. I subscribe to the belief that cinema is the world’s most powerful conveyor of empathy, and the art form is extraordinary in its ability to emotionally connect perfect strangers. As an empathetic machine, Beasts of No Nation tries too hard to convey the unimaginable, leaving in its place a sense of cold insouciance towards a system that is shown to be irreparably broken.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.