Beasts of No Nation, Netflix’ first exclusive feature film, is a gritty tale about the harsh realities of war and man’s propensity for cruelty against his fellow man. With Cary Fukunaga of True Detective-fame at the helm, the film follows the course of a war through the eyes of a child soldier, Agu.
Adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel, Beasts follows Agu, played by newcomer Abraham Attah in a show-stealing performance, who escapes the senseless killing of his family only to be captured and turned into a child soldier.
Agu flees the destruction of his village only to be found by the Commandant; a fearsome warlord played brilliantly by Idris Elba of Prometheus and Luther fame.
Watch the trailer here
Elba’s volcanic presence dominates the screen right from the moment he swaggers onto it, face obscured behind a pair of ‘80s Aviators and a haze of narcotic smoke; but it never obscures the main narrative of Agu, whose harrowing descent from innocent child to cold-blooded killer is distressing.
This is not a movie for the faint-hearted; Fukunaga has in Beasts created a pulverising and unsettling war movie in the vein of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
There are no villains or heroes in this movie; only those broken by the trials of war.
Watch a scene from the film here
Fukunaga’s reputation for brilliant camera-work is evident throughout Beasts, shot in the humid jungles of Ghana. Agu’s initial horror, then resignation and finally savage acceptance is intimately shown to us in tight, detailed shots.
Blood spatters the camera as Agu proves himself to his menacing Commandant by killing his first man; a scene made even more horrifying by the understated sound direction, which shows the dull thump of a machete being buried into another human being’s skull.
Fukunaga intersperses these with wide, panning shots of the Commandant and his army weaving their way through mountainous terrain in a similar vein to Werner Herzog’s 1972 classic, Aguirre, Wrath of God; and the action in Beasts unfolds in a frenzied panic that the German maestro would appreciate.
Agu’s descent and loss of innocence is neither caricature nor grotesque; instead, the ugliness of the violence, both in a psychological and physical sense, is depicted in an unflinching manner.
The sheer ferocity of the movie is powerfully captured in Elba’s Commandant; a Messianic figure whose overwhelming charisma has his malleable charges eating out of the palm of his hand. Elba uses this to great effect; there is one particular scene, arguably the best in the film, where he mentally prepares his soldiers for battle in a ritual that is part-war dance, part-charm and all savage fury.
Agu’s internal narration underscores key moments of Beasts; from his happy proclamation at the beginning of the movie that he is “a good boy from a good family,” to his grim satisfaction at killing a man.
Yet there are still traces of his decency left; in one particularly disturbing scene he hallucinates into thinking a captive is his long-lost mother. The hallucination wears off, before Agu shoots and kills the woman, to spare her from being raped.
Ultimately, Fukunaga’s movie does not succumb to the violent fatalism that it threatens to, especially in its second act; redemption is on the cards for Agu.
Elba’s fearsome Commandant is, somewhat disappointingly, revealed to be a broken, bitter man, and is abandoned by his men, his charismatic speech having now degenerated into the ravings of a madman.
“I am your future!” he bellows at his terrified charges, who leave and subsequently surrender to UN peacekeepers.
Yet there is still the hope of redemption for Agu; now far older than a boy of his years should actually be because of the atrocities he has seen and committed, and ashamed of what he has become.
“You will think that I am some sort of beast or devil,” he says, “but I also have a mother, father, brother and sister once. They loved me.”