This brutally honest war drama hits right where it hurts. 137 minutes of raw intensity against a visually stunning Ghanaian backdrop.
We all knew that soon, this day would come. In recent years, Netflix have established themselves as one of the most powerful forces in the industry, with more and more original productions hitting their streaming service daily. However, they have not produced an original film: until now. On the 16th October, Netflix’s debut film Beasts of No Nation, penned and directed by True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga, premiered on the site as well as in selected cinemas. It was featured as part of Venice, Toronto and Telluride’s Film Festivals.
The thing that I love about Netflix originals, is that they hold nothing back, and Beasts of No Nation is no exception. Truthfully, the film broke me. I had already cried within the first half hour, and nearly teared up again multiple times in the remainder of the film. It is a hard-hitting, powerful, and above all, very real film.
The film, based on the 2005 novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala, focuses on a young West African boy named Agu (played by newcomer Abraham Attah). In the midst of war, Agu’s mother and sister are given the opportunity to leave, but Agu; alongside his brother and father, are made to stay. After government officials come to their town, Agu is forced to flee and ends up in the forest. Here he is captured by a group of child soldiers, who take him to their Commandant (Idris Elba). Commandant takes a liking to Agu, and takes him in as a member of his battalion.
The remainder of the film follows Agu’s time as a child soldier, showing his decline as he gradually becomes more indoctrinated by the ways of the swarthy leader of his battalion. We see him going from being an innocent child from a Christian home, to a toughened soldier with blood on his hands and remorse in his heart.
Essentially, this film is a narrative about two things: war and the loss of innocence. Both are inextricably connected, and the film shows that very clearly. Fukunaga does an incredible job with the cinematography on this film, capturing the wonder of Ghana, specifically with his use of colour; but then tainting it by showing these horrifyingly violent action sequences against this picturesque backdrop. This juxtaposition is striking and makes for a film that is at times extremely difficult to watch – just as it should be. We should not be so numb to violence in the media, that watching children mercilessly killing does not make us uncomfortable.
Throughout the film, we have Agu narrating through voiceovers, and the childlike sincerity that he has demonstrates a blunt dissection of the events happening. These little interludes often include him praying to God, and these prayers are heart-breaking. After he makes his first kill, in a brutal and graphic scene, we hear him say in the voiceover. “God, I have killed a man, I have committed the worst sin. But I know it was the right thing to do.” This moment, after the protagonist has crossed a line that he cannot return from, is haunting because after all, we are still seeing a child in front of us.
When it comes down to it, it is the performances in the film that make Beasts of No Nation as gripping and hard-hitting as it is. Idris Elba is brilliant as the sadistic, charming, and ultimately, powerful Commandant. Whenever he is in a scene, he dominates it, equally managing to establish himself as the commanding authority figure, but also as a father; striving to protect the boys he has taken on as his squad. However, Elba’s is not the performance that stands out the most. That would instead have to go to Attah; who is revelatory in his debut role. We see as he sees, we feel what he feels. He is so apt at conveying his emotions; sometimes really subtly, and he carries this film so beautifully. In a way, it reminded me of Tom Holland’s performance in 2012’s The Impossible, purely because they are both examples of a young actor, cast alongside renowned character actors, who is still able to hold their own as if it were an easy feat.
Every moment of this film felt real, and I loved the fact that it didn’t try to disguise itself as something it wasn’t. It doesn’t sugar coat things; there are child soldiers in this world, and it is a horrific life that they lead. Beasts of No Nation is a sobering film, reminding us all of these realities in an emotional, visceral and visually stunning way.
Beasts of No Nation (2015), directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is distributed in the UK by Netflix, and is available to watch on their streaming service now. Certificate 15.