By Brad Tramel
In Beasts of No Nation, Agu (Abraham Attah), a young west African boy and the film’s narrator, describes his position in life the best he can: “I am a good boy from a good family.” When Agu says this, though, he knows nothing of the geopolitical morass he was born into or of the civil war he lives amid. Soldiers soon after accuse his family of aligning with the unnamed country’s rebels and make Agu an orphan. He successfully flees, but gets lost and captured by the actual rebel group. Throughout, their charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba) coaxes then coaches Agu in the mechanics of warfare, and we hope Agu’s humanity wins out over his exposure to wartime vice and violence.
This is a war movie, but the war is mere context for a much more interesting psychological case study of a normal boy turned child-soldier. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga makes us ponder the thin line between peace and violence—and good and evil—using the Commandant as a supportive faux-father in Agu’s transformation. “This man killed your family,” he tells Agu over and over, encouraging him to kill a captured soldier. There are still scenes we’ve seen in every war film—the rigorous training, the rally before the first fight—but Fukunaga will remind you of Agu’s boyhood impressionability at every step.
Pundits have spilled a lot of ink chastising the Academy for excluding black actors and directors from its recent nominations. Without getting too far into the topic, the criticism seems warranted after watching Beasts of No Nation. It is a deeply poignant military drama full of memorable performances. Elba especially displays a powerful charisma, then, at his character’s insignificance in the larger geopolitical scheme, a humanizing dismay. It’s the sort of range you’d expect from a Best Actor—or at least a nominee.
That’s not to say everyone should watch this. It doesn’t drip with gore, though that’s certainly there, and the violence itself isn’t bombastic or overwrought. But it is thoroughly uncomfortable to watch. I didn’t expect to be comfortable watching childhood purity juxtaposed with moral corruption, but I didn’t expect to be so mentally and emotionally exhausted either. But that, it seems, is the point: to provoke you to ponder a human situation both profoundly tragic and hauntingly real.