Surely one of the most beautiful films about ultimate ugliness ever, Cary Joji Fukunaga‘s immersive and profoundly moving “Beasts of No Nation” is a hollowing experience — it reaches in and scoops you out, piece by piece, until all that’s left is a cavernous shame at being a person who lives in a world where this story can happen. In this it is exactly the film that needed to be made about the ultimate degradation of morality represented by the practise of turning children into soldiers, and exactly the film that Uzodinma Iweala‘s remarkable novel deserved to inspire. Matching Fukunaga’s proven storytelling grace with a story truly worth the telling, the result is explosively authentic and yet lyrical, making an utterly inhumane and alien situation both completely real and completely abstract. It becomes the cumulative anguish of so many similar stories (our press notes suggest there are anything from 250,000 to 500,000 child soldiers in existence right now) distilled into one small boy. And the battleground is not just the dilapidated towns and jungles of his unnamed African home, but the far more valuable and vast territory of his soul.
The boy is Agu (astounding newcomer Abraham Attah) — bright, bold, but, as he tells us in his increasingly whispered and questioning voiceover “a good boy from a good family.” In a few endearing, funny scenes at the start, Fukunaga establishes our sympathy with him effortlessly — in fact it’s less sympathy than a sort of mind meld: we become him. We are Agu as he plays with his friends or roughhouses with his elder brother, we are him as he eats and burps and carries water back to the house. And we are him when the war between government forces and rebel factions comes to his hometown, and he is forcibly separated from his mother and watches his schoolteacher father die pleading for his life. Fleeing alone into the surrounding jungle, Agu is found by a guerilla “battalion” of the NDF (the largely meaningless acronyms used throughout — NDF, PLF, ECOMOD — serving constantly to remind us that loyalties here are less political than tribal), led by the Commandant (Idris Elba). He takes a shine to Agu, and orders him trained as a soldier rather than killed. And it is then, as Agu, starving and in fear for his life, makes the survival-instinct decision to break his traumatized silence and shout “Yes Sir!” “Yes Sir!” repeatedly that we witness the first of the film’s heart-dropping instances, perfectly communicated by Attah’s expressive eyes, of Agu’s incremental pact with the devil.
Because The Commandant truly is a devil of sorts. Elba is enormous in the role, bringing a casual charisma to even the most banal of exchanges, but building to a towering, bellowing Leader in those scenes where he spouts his indoctrinating madness at his followers. Indeed there’s something of the cult leader about him, despite his purported loyalty to the far-off authority of Supreme Leader Brother Goodblood, as well as defiantly Shakespearean flourishes (the ending especially recalls both “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar“). And that facility for inspiring devotion is present too in the scene where he first meets Agu, because he does something almost more ghastly than all the horrors to come: he smiles at the boy. The thing that makes the smile ghastly is that it is genuine, warm, paternal. Instantaneously we understand and forgive how Agu, suddenly essentially orphaned, might feel grateful to have been adopted into this violent, murderous new family.
Of course that’s also of factor of this being, even beyond the near-miraculous central performance (Attah has a to-camera monologue at the end which is an incredible acting moment) a supremely well-made film. Fukunaga, acting as his own DP finds a certain lyricism in his images, but never romances them. Instead, in his fluid, hip-height tracking shots (the unbroken raid sequence recalls the celebrated one-take wonder from “True Detective“) he simply looks out at the world from within his tiny, confused and terrified hero. So we get hallucinatory sequences when Agu is on drugs and sees the grass and the trees in various shades of blood red. And we get devastating moments of levity amid all the despair as he makes a fragile bond with a fellow soldier, the mute, doggedly loyal Strika (Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom). Throughout it all, the excellent, subtle score from Dan Romer (“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Mediterranea“) moves from shimmery electronica to percussive dissonance to, during one particularly effective moment, a rumbling drone that increases in volume till it becomes the deafening roar of blood rushing through your veins.
Perhaps one of the reasons the experience of child soldiers has been so largely underreported is because to look at war through a child’s eyes is to understand, simply, that war is wrong in all its forms. Because even outside of the age of the participants, there is an undercurrent of furious pacifism to Fukunaga’s outlook that makes a broader point, as his evocative, textured imagery subtly recalls wars past. From the trench warfare of WWI, to the swooping, sickeningly thrilling bridge-taking sequence that could be a from a WWII film, to the Vietnam of jungles and choppers, this tinpot rebellion in a faraway land comes to stand for all wars, and Agu for all who are made war’s victim by being made war’s killers. By placing Agu in the eye of this storm, and by placing us inside Agu, Fukunaga brings home the horror and human cost of conflict and takes a faceless issue and makes us live it, experiencing the eradication of Agu’s innocence as if it were our own. It is long, it is demanding and it gives us no easy answers or pat conclusions, but “Beasts of No Nation” performs a crucial service in making us understand that this is not “Boko Haram” or “ISIS” or a bunch of undifferentiated, unwanted kids killing each other in a distant Third World country. This is you or me, but for the grace of whatever God Agu prays to in vain. And why would God answer? As even the Commandant says at one point, this is not the work of God, but of man. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Venice Film Festival.