“Sun, why do you shine on this world?”
Those words are spoken by Agu, a pre-teen West African boy who is coerced to become a child soldier in the midst of war after government forces murder his father and brother. Agu is the subject of “Beasts of No Nation,” Cary Joji Fukunaga’s devastating depiction of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name. The story shows the horrors of war through the lens of a child in combat, and the movie places particular emphasis on two of the cruelest ironies of war: the natural beauty of the outside world as a stage on which mass bloodshed takes place, and the manner in which war demolishes the innocence of youth. The sun beams onto the vivid greenery of the West African jungle, and the brightness of the environment leaves Agu no means to escape from the darkness of tragedy, no way to transport himself away from the battlefield and back into the happy normalcy of youth.
“Beasts of No Nation” opens with a series of scenes that portray Agu as a funny and imaginative prankster, a quintessential youngster with a smile that soothes all worries. But when leaders in his village warn the community that war is on the horizon, Agu’s world is thrust into chaos. His mother is unwillingly separated from her kids and sent to another town. Shortly thereafter, gunfire ensnares the village, and soldiers shoot and kill Agu’s father and brother in an instance of mistaken identity. Agu, shattered to his core by the loss of his family but compelled to act quickly in the face of possible death, flees the scene and wanders into the jungle, with no food or water, no companion to console his grief. A few days later, rebel forces discover Agu. The army’s charismatic, unforgiving commander manipulates Agu into joining the rebels and convinces him that doing so will allow him to seek vengeance against the government that killed his father and brother. Before Agu realizes the extent of his situation, he becomes hypnotized by the dizzying chaos of war, and the commander’s vicious exertion of power leaves Agu no choice other than to murder and pillage.
“Beasts of No Nation” is unflinching in its portrayal of wartime inhumanity and, as a result, the movie is at times difficult to watch. It is impossible to watch this film and not become saddened and outraged at the brutal violence that continues to poison our world. Writer-director Fukunaga, who directed the first season of HBO’s “True Detective,” provides “Beasts of No Nation” with a level of philosophical rumination that served as a hallmark of season one of HBO’s crime mystery. Here, Fukunaga ponders, laments, and assails the factors that lead human beings to commit acts of evil with remorseless rage. Fukunaga does not provide any answers, mostly because the reasons behind such inhumanity are almost impossible to grasp. “Beasts of No Nation” works not as a clear analysis of why war exists, but rather as a haunting contemplation of war’s limitless physical and psychological damage. Fukunaga’s examination of the psychology of war is the movie’s most impressive merit. By illuminating the jungle in a hue of pink and red during a scene of combat, for example, Fukunaga asserts the disorienting surrealism of Agu’s experience.
Abraham Attah is astonishing as Agu. Attah begins the movie by capturing the joyful mayhem of childhood. He then proceeds to encapsulate the fear, loneliness, emotional detachment, and loss of moral consciousness that defines Agu’s wartime existence. It is the second flawless performance of the year from a child actor, following Jacob Tremblay’s outstanding work in “Room.” Both Attah and Tremblay deserve to be recognized come Oscar time. The film juxtaposes Attah’s youthful innocence with Idris Elba’s terrifying cult of personality. As the amoral commander who uses his child soldiers for personal gratification and professional gain, Elba flaunts unrestrained charisma as a destructive weapon. It is a remarkable piece of acting that conjures memories of Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning turn as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.”
“Beasts of No Nation” is the first Netflix original film, and it is a stellar cinematic debut from a media company known for its prestigious television series. Much like Agu at the end of the movie, viewers will emerge from Fukunaga’s masterpiece haunted, angered, and in pursuit of something that will help clarify the meaning of senseless war.