Netflix’s first foray into feature films looks to be a wise, wise choice; there’s been talk of Beasts of No Nation becoming a major Oscar contender by the end of the year, and it’s not hard to see why. The film follows Agu, a West-African child that, after being separated in vicious circumstances from his endearing family, is forcibly enlisted and raised by a ruthless yet engaging ‘Commandant’, to become a child soldier. It’s harrowing, relevant subject matter, and the film doesn’t shy away from the tragedies and awful consequences that arise with the recruitment of youngsters to fight in a savage, territorial war.
The film starts off harmlessly enough, with a smiling Agu (played terrifically by first-timer Abraham Attah) cheekily attempting to sell an ‘imagination-TV’ with his friends. The comedy and joy is quickly diminished, and the descent into ferocious, troubling war is cleverly contrasted by its jubilant epilogue. Director Cary Fukunaga, of True Detective fame, excels in crafting sequences of intense, tragic warzones; encapsulating Beast of No Nation as a whole, they’re brave, visually mesmerising and unafraid to detail the immense bloodshed. These scenes are shot by Fukunaga himself, where the camerawork is used wonderfully – particularly in an overwhelmingly powerful tracking shot – to capture both the sorrow and the survivalist instinct of the men shown on screen. It’s kinetic and stylistically superb, but doesn’t burden the terrifyingly realistic action.
Abraham Attah is a revelation as Agu – emotionally astounding and maturely performed. It’s testament to Attah that he matches – and often goes beyond – the more showy, brutal performance by Idris Elba as Agu’s commandant. Elba adds complexity to a character that wisely avoids becoming melodramatic, completely transforming into his taxing role.
Due to its subject matter, the film is unavoidably emotional and upsetting to watch, with many scenes difficult to sit through without covering your eyes at the horror of it all. Aided by Dan Romer’s unusual, effective synthetic score, there are many tearjerking moments that beautifully evoke anguish of Agu’s situation, yet it never feels like the film is manipulative or overly preachy. One scene, around halfway into the film, shows white tourists indifferently snapping photos of the war-stricken battalion as they pass by; Beasts of No Nation’s message is clear. Something needs to change.
– Gus Edgar