Walking across a field with gun in hand young Agu (Abraham Attah) begins to hallucinate. Seeing visions of tribal men marching alongside him, as the land around him turns a vivid fuchsia, he can no longer stave off his descent into madness. The horrors of war have taken their toll one him and there are no signs of them letting up anytime soon.
Thrust into the life of a child soldier, Agu is in a nightmare that he may never wake from. It is this relentless and brutally bleak rabbit hole which Agu spirals down that is the focus of Cary Joji Fukunaga blistering Beast of No Nation. Based on Uzodinma Iweala’s book of the same name, the film follows Agu as his happy world is shattered when the conflict between the army and National Defense Force (NDZ) rebels escalates. Left on his own, after the army kills a large portion of his family, Agu inadvertently stumbles into rebel terrain and is recruited to be one of the NDZ’s numerous fighters.
Taken under the wing of the battalion leader, Commandant (Idris Elba), and witnessing unspeakable acts, Agu eventually begins to lose sight of the boy he once was. Thrown into the bloody waters of adulthood, and drowning under the powerful current of the violent and nonsensical conflict, Agu finds himself trapped in a war where the line between good and evil is no longer visible.
One of the recurring criticisms that has been hurled against Beast of No Nation is the relentless level of brutality that it depicts on-screen. Fukunaga’s film holds the audience’s head down in the grime, rarely letting them come up for air. While some see this as a flaw, it should be considered one of the film’s strengths. Beast of No Nation effectively places the viewer in the tattered clothes of child soldiers. It entrenches them in a world where one cannot simply escape the travesties by turning off the television or unfollowing someone on social media. Much like the experience its main character endures, the film ingrains itself deep in the viewer’s subconscious, making them feel uncomfortable long after the film ends.
The wonderful thing about Fukunaga’s construction is that the audience feels nothing but compassion for Agu, even when his actions dictate otherwise. Abraham Attah is absolutely stunning in the lead role. He brings a level of honesty and vulnerability to the character that few child actors manage to achieve. Attah’s moving performance perfectly complements Idris Elba’s chilling work as the lecherous Commandant. Elba displays immense range in the film, especially in the moments where the Commandant begins to realize that his superiors might be fighting a different style war altogether, one which threatens to make him obsolete.
Beast of No Nation never talks down to its audience or attempts to take aim at one particular country. By setting the film in an unnamed African region, the film provides a surprisingly universal feel. It draws attention to all those children globally who are asked to pick up arms in the senseless wars that grown men create. The fact that the film features some of the best cinematography work audiences will see this year, only heightens the impact of the carnage on-screen. One cannot help but question how such a beautiful world has given birth to those who would violate a child’s innocence for their own personal gains. Raw and unflinching in its depictions of the plight child soldiers, Beast of No Nation is one of the year’s best films.