Beasts of No Nation, which opened in select theaters and on Netflix this past weekend, is a coming-of-age saga of uncommon brutality. Set in an African country that is never named, it concerns Agu (Abraham Attah), a boy of about twelve who, in the wake of a violent insurgency, is conscripted into a rebel army of child soldiers led by the fearsome, charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba). If the general contours of the story seem familiar (a young hero learns to make his way alone in a dangerous and chaotic world), they’re effectively re-interpreted within the bracing context of a war-torn Africa. Imagine Oliver Twist as crossed with The Last King of Scotland and you have some idea of what Beasts of No Nation is going for.
Attah makes a formidable debut as Agu, but the film belongs to Elba, whose Commandant is magnificently imagined—monstrous, flamboyant, and purringly sexual. He looms large both literally and figuratively, towering over the children in his command and eclipsing everything and everyone else on the screen. Sitting around the campfire like Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, the Commandant regales them with dirty jokes and inspires them with fantasies of avenging the deaths of their families. Their raids and rampages feel more like parades, carried out with singing and dancing, the soldiers’ guerilla uniforms offset by traditional African accessories. They are, as the Commandant says, a “family”—albeit one bound by ties of violence rather than blood, and headed by an especially terrifying patriarch.
Beasts is canny in its understanding of the poisonous rhetoric of war: Agu and his fellow soldiers are seduced by the Commandant’s talk of brotherhood and honor, of taking back their country and being rewarded with glory and women. The first of several rude awakenings comes when Agu is goaded into taking a machete to the head of one of the rebel army’s prisoners. (The second comes when Agu discovers that his service to the Commandant extends to the bedroom.) It doesn’t seem to matter which “side” of the war the Commandant and his army are fighting on, or whether their actions are justifiable; even if they are, they don’t seem to be worth the trauma that Agu and his brothers in arms are made to suffer in helping carry them out.
The film is directed by Cary Fukunaga, whose previous credits include the brilliant first season of HBO’s True Detective and a rather unremarkable remake of Jane Eyre. Beasts is slickly put together, and it packs a punch—though for all its emotional intensity I’m not convinced that it adds up to much. (It tells us that war is hell, but we already knew that.) It remains unclear what drew Fukunaga to this project, or what his connection to the material is, other than perhaps as a technical exercise. He’s proven himself to be a skilled craftsman; his identity as a filmmaker has yet to reveal itself.