“God…are you watching what we are doing?” – Agu
There’s a haunting lyricism to Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts Of No Nation that stays with you long after the film ends. The way Fukunaga adapts the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala lends itself to a sort of grim poetry. A hellish nightmare to be sure, but a nightmare that can be awoken from. Even if it may not seem like it for much of the movie.
Agu (Abraham Attah) starts the movie as just an ordinary child in what is heavily alluded to as Nigeria, and is, at the very least, somewhere in West Africa. As the movie begins, we see Agu recruiting other children to help him peddle his ‘imagination T.V.’ to the occupying soldiers in his village. It’s really just the outer husk of a television but the soldiers either take pity on him or admire his verve and give him money anyway.
Agu’s family is somewhat wealthy by his village standards. They have land in which to house refugees from other villages, and Agu’s Father (Kobina Amissah-Sam), a former teacher, is also the Section Chief for his village. Agu’s Mother (Ama K. Abebrese) is busy taking care of Agu’s baby sister, his older brother (Francis Weddey) and their senile Grandfather (Emmary Brown).
Agu and his family learn the government has fallen and the NFD has taken hold. Agu’s Father races to get his wife and children out of the village during the mass exodus. Because of the sheer numbers of people fleeing he is only able to secure passage for his wife and baby. Agu and his older brother must stay behind with their Father and Grandfather.
Through a tragic set of circumstances, Agu and his remaining family, along with others, find themselves at the mercy of a local homeless woman suffering from dementia. The NFD takes her word over the villagers and summarily executes everyone. Agu manages to escape into the jungle and from there we get to the meat of the movie.
Agu is forced to fend for himself until he is found by the NFD rebel forces. Here, he meets the Commandant (Idris Elba). From his first words to Agu, the Commandant begins to indoctrinate and coerce the child into being indebted to him. “I saved your life. I saved your life. I saved your life. Go.” He says to Agu, as he pounds his knuckles onto the ammo box the child is forced to carry over his head.
Herein lies the movie: Agu and his relationship with the Commandant. We watch Agu as he goes from just a child to a child soldier, replete with hazings, history lessons in which the NFD paints the other parties as savage and corrupt, and tactical training.
At every step, there is the Commandant smiling down upon the soldiers, giving out praise or criticisms at a whim, and making sure, at all times, everyone is one hundred percent committed to the NFD. We watch Agu as he ascends the ranks from newcomer to favored second son and bodyguard to the Commandant. Along the way, Agu befriends another child soldier Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), a fellow child soldier who never speaks and is also beloved by the Commandant.
What is most noticeable about Beasts of No Nation is how it manages to never once waver in its telling. In addition to directing and adapting the movie, Fukunaga also shot the movie. He shoots the film and tells the story with a sure and confident hand. For such a dark and terrifying look into the real and truly dark soul of humanity, there is a sort of faint ether of hope, toward the end.
All need not be lost.
There will be much praise heaped upon Idris Elba, and for good reason– he turns in an amazing performance. From the moment he arrives on the screen, he captivates your attention. There is a warm and loving sinisterness to him that draws you to him.
But let us not overlook Abraham Attah as Agu. Attah has the impossible task of bearing the brunt and weight of this movie. He is our eyes and ears and is in almost every frame. To say he more than meets his task is an understatement. At the end of the film, he has a world-weariness to him that is absolutely sad. Forced to have grown up all too fast, he must struggle to remember a world he was forced to forget. A world where he is allowed to play and learn– to be a child.
There is a fierceness and a gruesomeness to Beasts of No Nation. But Fukunaga wisely does not drown you in it. He shows you just enough without exploiting the horrors or cheapening them. The nightmarish quality of it all is tempered with a sort of dreamlike beauty as the film mediates on the actions of the characters, terrifying though they may be.
The final scene shows Agu joining the other refugee children as they play on the beach. A glimmer of hope that maybe Agu, while alone, might be able to realize that he is not truly alone. The film wisely avoids telling us what becomes of Agu. We leave him, free of the Commandant, and in the hands of people who genuinely care for him.
But he cannot unsee what he has seen, nor undo what he has done. But he will try. There is hope, after all.
Image courtesy of Netflix
J Sherman lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.