Wait a minute. This isn’t the new season of House of Cards!
In an unnamed West African country, a young boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) lives with his mother, father, older brother, younger sister, and not-all-that-there grandfather, who have all had their lives taken over by all sorts of war and havoc. But because they’re passionate about where they live and the name of God, they stick to where they’re at and won’t let any outside forces, whether they be the the junta, rebels, or government forces, ruin their times. Problem is, that’s exactly what happens and poor Agu is the one who has to witness it all. Not only does his mother and sister set-out for an undisclosed location where they’ll hopefully be safe, but Agu’s father, grandfather, and brother are all shot and killed in cold blood, leaving Agu to have to run for the hills, all on his own, where it seems like every other person that he encounters either wants to kill him, or take him in as a prisoner. One person in particular goes by the name of Commandant (Idris Elba), a ferocious, clearly intimidating force to be reckoned with. But he’s also one that takes a liking to Agu and promises to take care of him, so long so as Agu joins up as one of his child soldiers where they’ll ravage any villages that they stumble upon, leading to plenty of violent tasks Agu has to complete just so that he doesn’t lose his own life and become like the rest of his family.
Don’t look into those eyes, kid.
Besides the fact it’s being released on Netflix, the same day that it’s being released in theaters, Beasts of No Nation is still a movie worth seeing, discussing and remembering for awhile to come. Sure, some of the latter portion may have to do with the fact that there are countless grotesque and disturbing scenes of people getting shot, killed, raped, split-open, sliced, and diced, all while involving pre-pubescent children, but still. It’s been a long, windy and sometimes dangerous road for Cary Joji Fukunaga’s flick and honestly, I’m just happy to finally be seeing it.
Not to mention that the movie itself, is actually pretty great, if not incredibly hard-to-watch at certain times. Then again, that’s to be expected, given the source material and subject at-hand (child-soldier tales were never known for their light, comedic-touches). But while that may break most movies, Fukunaga is smart enough to realize that in order to make all of these immoral acts of violence seem pertinent, that they can’t be excessive; instead, they have to put you into the story much more. Because Agu is literally thrown into this world where war provides almost no rules that the actual, real world would provide, it makes sense that almost every situation he’s involved with, ends up with somebody getting their heads blown-off, or split by a machete.
It sounds graphic, and that’s because it is.
And this is to say that, yes, a lot of Beasts of No Nation is hard to sit through, but because it feels as if we’re getting a no-bullshit, actual account of what happened (or, at least, still happens to this day), it never seems excessive or gratuitous. Like he did with the first season of True Detective (that’s to say, the way, way better one), Fukunaga portrayed these acts of senseless violence in such a detached manner, that they’re more disturbing to watch, then they are appetizing. It’s like the opposite of any Eli Roth movie; the blood spatters, but instead of getting up and shouting, “F**k yeah!”, you’re more inclined to gasp, hide your eyes and hope that you don’t see anything like that in the movie again.
Problem is, you most likely will. And in some cases, it’ll be a whole lot worse.
But like I said, Fukunaga is a smart director and story-teller, and shows that all of these acts of violence are meant to shock, but to also put you more into the mind-set of Agu and why someone as seemingly innocent, sweet and child-like as he is at the start of the film, would turn into this mean, evil, and nasty killer by the end of it. For one, the movie doesn’t ever represent any side as “good”, “bad”, or “moderate”; Agu’s family is actually killed by who are presented to be “one of the better groups”, so already, the movie makes it clear that it’s taking no sides. And nor should it – Agu himself would clearly have no idea who to trust, or who to steer clear of. Hence why, when the first hand that reaches out to him eventually comes in the form of a huge, bulking man known as Commandant, Agu can’t help but fall for the love and care, hook, line and sinker.
And it definitely deserves to noted that Idris Elba is spectacular Commandant. While we know he’s not a good person and kills people because he can, there’s something still so charming about him that makes Commandant a compelling-figure. A good portion of this has to go with the fact that he isn’t written to be a mustache-twirling villain and into more of a human that was born into this kind of society, but most of it has to go to Elba’s unabashed charisma, who is sometimes able to blend menace and intellect all into one person. While he’s not the star of this movie, Elba is still the most important figure and whenever he does show up, you know that he’s going to completely own every scene and remind you why he’s the one who should be the next Bond.
An evil, thoughtless killer? No! Not this little guy!
But no slouch either, is non-professional actor Abraham Attah as Agu. Because Agu is, essentially, our eyes and ears to this new world, Attah sometimes feels like he’s being placed into certain scenes just to show significance, but he’s still great because of how believable he is with the transition this character goes through, that it’s almost terrifying. Agu, originally, seems to be a innocent, playful kid like you or I once were, but when push comes to shove, travesty occurs, and he’s left without a hand to feed him or comfort him, he grows up real quick and starts killing as much people as he sees fit (or is at least ordered to). The transition he goes through isn’t a clear one as there’s always a sense of morality hidden underneath this kid’s facade that makes you think he may not be all that swamped-up by Commandant’s evil, but still, it’s quite frightening to watch play-out, especially because Attah is so good.
If there is a complaint to be had with Beasts of No Nation that keeps it away from being an unabashed masterpiece, is that it sometimes feels as if it’s too dark and depressing, without any shade of sentiment to be seen. While some of you may say that it’s a stupid complaint to have for a movie that’s literally about child soldiers in Africa, to me, it still mattered. The same problem I had with 12 Years a Slave; while the material definitely deserves to be as ugly as it can be, there still needs to be a small glimmer of hope that makes it seem like a worth while experience, and not just a torturous one.
Here, Beasts of No Nation ends on a note that promises some life after the fact, but by the same token, also can’t help but feel as if it’s also saying, “Being a child and forced to kill people is bad. Hey, people in Africa have it bad, don’t they?” While it was definitely an engaging story to watch unfold in front of my very own eyes, it’s also one that doesn’t share much of a strong message at the end and tends to just leave you alone, left to suffer on your own time. Then again, you’re on Netflix, so you can always get rid of those bad feels by binging the absolute hell out of Friends.
As one tends to do after being a witness to traumatic experiences.
Consensus: At times, very hard-to-watch, but still, Beasts of No Nation provides a compelling, awfully emotional look into the gritty world it displays, that it deserves many points for not backing down from its disturbing vision.
8.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire