‘Beasts of No Nation’: A Child’s Journey Through the Hell of War

Tara Coughlin ’19
Contributing Writer

Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” is a brutally uncompromising film centered on the hell of war as seen and experienced by a child. The main character and narrator is Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy in an unspecified area of West Africa, enjoying a carefree childhood with his family. All seems well until war arrives at Agu’s doorstep and his father and brother are killed in the ensuing slaughter. Fleeing for his life, Agu is captured by the Commandant (Idris Elba) and his rebel battalion consisting mostly of child soldiers. After a brutal initiation, Agu is made a soldier of the battalion and participates in all the inhumanity that war entails.

Director Cary Fukunaga, who also directed “True Detective” (2014) and “Jane Eyre” (2011), said that “Beasts of No Nation” is a project he has been passionate about since 2006, and his dedication to the project is clear. He directs the film with crisp, focused cinematography permeated by a realistic atmosphere. The film presents atrocities in clean, unbroken shots, that reflect Fukunaga’s uncompromising attitude towards his material. The only artistic sequence in the film is when the trees turn purple when Agu is given heroin before a village raid. For all the beauty of the landscape and cinematography, however, the film can prove difficult to sit through as it deals with violence and sadism.

The film is mainly worth seeing for its two lead performances, one given by a prodigy and the other by a virtuoso. Attah, in his first film, gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from a child actor. Attah portrays the shifts from an unassuming, simple adolescent boy to a brutal killer to a person suffering from PTSD seamlessly and without any pretense or affectation. He is simply there in these horrible situations. It is especially heartbreaking when he speaks to a counselor about his experiences and simply says, “I saw terrible things…and I did terrible things.” His eyes portray someone who’s been to the depths of hell and back. He is no longer a child.

Elba, a veteran actor who has been on the rise as of late, gives an equally impressive performance as the Commandant. With an excellent West African accent and menacing appearance, Elba inhabits the role and brings out its various shades and complexities. So effective is his chilling, father-like role to the young boys, that one almost feels happy for the gleeful Agu as the Commandant begins to praise him for his skill as a “soldier.” His character is a reminder of how influential charisma is when it comes to gaining power over others, especially children.

“Beasts of No Nation” may be aptly described as an important film, but it is not a film that will provide any groundbreaking commentary on the nature or effects of war. Its main differentiating quality is the uniqueness of having the perspective of war come from a child, a perspective I would like to see more of in war films. Be warned, though, this film is not for the faint of heart.

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