Before using the word “harrowing” to describe the movie Beasts of No Nation, I double-checked the definition to ensure I had the correct meaning. When I saw the word defined as “acutely distressing,” I knew this was the correct descriptor. The film is Cary Fukunaga’s most recent fictional drama, centered around the life of a young West African boy named Agu (played by Abraham Attah). The film’s cinematic importance lies not only in its content, but also in the fact that it is the first feature-length film for which Netflix has purchased full distribution rights. Agu’s story takes place in an unnamed village that has just been seized by a paramilitary group. Though all the men in his family are killed, Agu manages a hasty escape into the jungle.
The film is highly emotional right from the get-go, and characters are killed off before their personalities are even fully developed. The only reason Agu survives the jungle is because he is captured by a guerilla fighting group, trying to take back the country from those that had killed Agu’s family.
The first thing I was surprised to learn about this film was that Abraham Attah had never acted before; he was simply a local from the filming location in Ghana. His emotional performance throughout the film is riveting; his narration in broken English is filled with poetic descriptions of his surroundings. The film takes the audience through the transformation of children in war-zones into child soldiers, and the swift thievery of youth as they become killing machines. Agu’s narrative morphs from telling the audience about games he plays with his siblings, to describing killing a man as “the worst sin, but the right sin.”
Agu is enlisted into this guerilla group made up mostly of boys around his age, and led by the Commandant (Idris Elba), a charismatic leader who is ruthless and charming. Elba plays his character as a fearsome leader that commands respect, but also with a hint of paternalism, an essential feature in uniting the boys under his command. He is manipulative, and knows just what each boy needs to hear to get him to fight. For Agu, the Commandant conjures up images of the death of his father and brother, asking Agu over and over again if he wants to kill the men who decimated his family.
The Commandant uses rousing speeches, his air of bravado, and just the right amount of Brown Brown (cocaine mixed with gunpowder) to whip his boy army into a fighting frenzy. It is clear that the Commandant is acting as a surrogate father figure to many of these fighters, which is part of the reason for their fierce loyalty. Agu does not know the motivations of the Commandant’s men; all he knows is that he is fighting to avenge the death of his family. By leaving unspecified which side is the “good” side, Fukunaga has ensured that the audience knows just as much about the conflict as Agu.
This effectively speaks to the confusion of war and to the fact that it can be genuinely difficult to tell the good from the bad in the middle of a conflict. The film is graphic, and it is not for the faint of heart. Watching a child hack open a man’s skull with a machete is gruesome, but as director Cary Fukunaga states, anything he portrays is “not even a tenth of the violence in an actual war.” That being said, in between and even during the grisliest scenes, are shots that are framed so beautifully they look like stills from National Geographic. Taking full advantage of the vibrant colours and vast landscapes of the Ghanaian jungle, Fukunaga juxtaposes the splendor of the landscape with the atrocities that are being committed within. Though most of the events in the film are far removed from anything individuals in the Western world would experience, the overarching themes of loyalty and revenge are familiar to all, and make the film instantly relevant the world over.
Paige Guscott, Online Reviewer