REVIEW: ‘Beasts of No Nation’ is a truly harrowing masterpiece (★★★½)
Agu and his family in West Africa live a simple but happy existence. They laugh, play, fight, burp and fart at the table. He and his friends cart around an empty television shell and put on ‘imagination TV’ in hopes of earning money. It’s one of the last moments of humor and lightness we’ll see.
Soon all of that changes as a civil war encroaches on their small village. Warring factions and UN involvement make for hysteria and confusion and Agu’s mother, younger brother and infant sister are separated so that they can escape the strife. Agu and his older brother and father are left behind and very soon after Agu’s brother and father are both murdered by mercenaries. Agu escapes into the jungle but is quickly scooped up by a band of young rebels. Here Agu must undergo excruciating levels of indoctrination that culminate in his first killing; it’s a shattering moment.
As the Commandant, Idris Elba is chilling and brilliant. He slithers through as a Fagin-like character with his army of orphan boy soldiers touting “I saved your life!” to procure and ensure loyalty. He promises riches, food and women. But for young Agu (and the other boys), those favors come at a price, robbing him of what innocence he had left.
I don’t think enough can be said about the debut of Abraham Attah as Agu. Often critics will accuse a child performance of simply being fed lines from the director to get what is needed or that some kind of emotional manipulation must take place to get a child to emote. That never feels that way here. Abraham Attah gives one of the most electrifying film debuts from a child in decades. It’s heartbreakingly felt and one of the best performances of the year. When he says, “If this war is going to end, I cannot go back to doing child things,” you believe him.
In only his third feature film, director Cary Fukunaga has created a truly harrowing masterpiece. Material like this is easy to exploit and accusations of ‘misery porn’ will probably be tossed its way. It’s more (and less) than that. It’s an incredibly delicate (and successful) balance of sadness and horror but also the possibility of hope and never glamorizes or fetishizes the devastation. Acting as his own cinematographer, Fukunaga gives us a bounty of color and scope and in once brief psychedelic sequence, allows us (and Agu) to escape for a brief reprieve.
This is a powerhouse of a film about a subject matter most people might not even realize exists to the extent that it does. It’s assured and confident with a deeply sympathetic center that carries you to the end.
Beasts of No Nation opens in select theaters October 16th and streams same day and date from Netflix.