Director: Cary Fukunaga
Cast: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba
Watch Beasts of No Nation online in the UK: Netflix
A landmark in cinema and distribution history, Beasts of No Nation is Netflix’s first original feature – and what a revealing choice it is. After all, a two-hour film about a young child recruited to be a soldier in a brutal West African war isn’t exactly your typical feel-good Friday night flick. It’s hard to imagine what films you’d have to rate highly on the streaming site for it to appear on your recommended to-watch list.
Cary Fukunaga’s movie is harrowingly good – a study of conflict so wilfully brutal that it practically wages war on its audience. After a sweet introduction to life in the unnamed home village of Agu (Attah), burps and pranks give way to bullet holes and tanks, as troops ride into town and lay waste to the peace. Violence, blood and death assault the screen constantly, leaving you cowering behind your hands and the boy fleeing for his life.
Fukunaga presents these horrors from a child’s perspective by adopting Agu as his protagonist – but it’s only a matter of time before someone else takes him under their wing. That someone is the Commandant (Elba), a fearsome, fierce warrior with a knack for rearing fighters by roaring at cubs. Elba is immediately intimidating, towering over Attah and the rest of the ensemble, sporting a beret and shades with the casual confidence of an alpa male.
What follows is a chilling depiction of radicalisation, as Agu is recruited to the army’s cause. “How does the Commandant look?” he barks repeatedly at his wards, as part of a call-and-response routine, before directing his new charge at an innocent member of the public. “This is the man who killed your father,” he tells Agu. Nobody seems to be convinced, but that doesn’t matter; obedience is the important thing to believe.
Ritual plays a fascinating role in the Commandant’s bewitching spell over these children: one sequence sees the soldiers fire blanks at the group’s newest members to show they are invincible. At what point do the older troops move from being deceived to helping dupe the others? And by that point, do they even remember the lie that was fed to them?
The line between naive and mercenary is played astonishingly well by newcomer Attah, who swings between remorse and resilience in the blink of a teary eye. “I’m not a baby,” his narration tells us at one point in a weary whisper. “I’m an old man.” It’s a heartbreaking performance, reinforced by Fukunaga’s unflinching camerawork – only one scene of abuse between the Commandant and Agu is left off-screen, while other traumas, such as being separated from his parents, occur with the sudden abruptness of real life; it’s no coincidence that while Agu is given some insight into warfare by the Commandant, the reasons behind the conflict are never fully explained.
Its effects, though, are easy to see – particularly during one striking sequence, where drugs used to mollify the kids turn a battlefield into a striking blend of pinks and purples, humans and animals, faces and masks. There’s a constant sense that the hellish landscape is part of the pressure upon Agu to grow up; not unlike Apocalypse Now, or Aguirre: Wrath of God, Fukugana lets his camera fall behind his lead, leaving him to be swallowed by the vast greenery.
While Uzodinma Iweala’s novel is told through Agu’s first-person prose, Fukunaga’s film increases the amount of time we spend with Elba’s chief – a direct consequence of just how good the Luther star is. In his hands, what could have been a two-dimensional bully becomes far more complex: singing, dancing, clapping and chanting, he looks upon his fighters as his boys, an ambiguous mix of caring and controlling. You get the sense that he’s as high on his own authority as anyone else, something that becomes painfully evident when we see that the conflict is even bigger than him; he’s not really in charge at all. This extension of Elba’s role, though, means that the impact of Agu’s limited POV is weakened – the movie is most effective when spending time in his company. Nonetheless, there’s no denying the power of Beasts of No Nation, which brutally captures the systematic stripping away of one boy’s childhood, piece by piece.
The book was first written 10 years ago, but Beasts of No Nation tackles a subject that remains tragically relevant today. The result is an important watch, and not just because it’s Netflix’s first original film. It’s hard to imagine what else you’d have to rate highly for it to appear on your Netflix to-watch list, but it’s one that deserves to be.
Beasts of No Nation is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.