Chomping on blunts, refugee soldiers cut the back of a boy’s head and smear a foreign powder into the wound to “boost moral” before they traipse across war-torn jungles. The Commandant instructs a group how to tape grenades into civilians’ mouths. Balls of fire shoot across a deep black sky to the score of gunshots and synths. After molestation, two small boys console each other by the campfire. These are just a few scenes in filmmaker Cary Fukunaga’s passion project Beasts of No Nation, a movie about a child who comes to understand the deceitfulness of the world via his experience as a soldier in West Africa. It is a brutal coming of age story with disturbing content. This film is not easy to watch, but its images are unforgettable.
Based on Uzodinma Iweala’s gripping novel, the film Beasts of No Nation was produced, written, and shot by Fukunaga. If Fukunaga’s name sounds familiar, it’s because his cinematography was heralded as being the best thing about the first season of True Detective. On Beasts, his trademark calculated, balletic cinematography was enriched by gifted actors who tell the story of a young boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) who loses all his family and is adopted into the war by a refugee camp’s morally ambiguous leader, Commandant (Idris Elba). Basically, every time you think Agu’s life can’t get worse, someone close to him dies or gets raped. His only source of hope is his Commandant. Godlike to his young army, Commandant leads them on a hellish and hallucinatory journey reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, with bombs and drugs electrifying the lush landscape of Africa. The structure of the film is strict enough for it’s dreamlike montages to have an immersive effect on the audience, but the artsy slow frame rate gets a little taxing by the end of this nearly two and a half hour movie in which nothing positive happens at all. We have to watch people beaten with guns; does it have to be in slow motion, too?
The same way a child has to eventually realize his parents aren’t superheroes (except not the same way at all, because this child is a murdering war orphan who snorts gunpowder and his father figure wears a beret and carries grenades), Agu’s glowing image of Commandant fades, and by the end of the film, the squad must decide how to survive, with him or without. Agu’s voice narrates from time to time, serving as markers for his increasing awareness that his life will always be pretty horrible, though the last image of Beasts does offer a glimmer of hope.
Beasts is the first fiction film to be distributed by Netflix, and probably for good reason. Even though you can stream it on your computer, it’s a movie that demands be seen on the big screen. The film knowingly contrasts the reign of violence with beautiful images, evoking heartbreaking quality of storytelling that at once conveys the loss of innocence and the pointlessness of war. Fukunaga made a movie that will be talked about for a long time. See it now, and see it in the theater.