As potent and powerful a film as “Beasts of No Nation” is over the course of its two-and-a-half hour run time, the most poignant scene may be a simple whistle.
A group of young rebel fighters, many of whom look barely old enough to attend high school, are whistling a song of their youth as they are driven by Jeep to a village they will eventually pillage.
The boys are united by the song in the same way they are united in their involvement in a conflict they are too young to fully understand. It is this loss of innocence in the face of unbelievable hardship that lay at the core of “Beasts.”
This scene, as much as any other, illustrates how the rebels’ newest recruit, Agu (played marvelously by Abraham Attah), is attempting to accept the situation he finds himself in. It proves fruitless, however, because when the song ends, there is only death and despair at the end.
Beasts of No Nation tells the story of young Agu who, as the story opens, is living with his parents, older brother and two younger siblings in a small village within an unnamed African country at the onset of a civil war.
Agu and his family live in a buffer zone enforced by Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) troops. Agu’s father aids the refugees from the surrounding areas by allowing them stay on his land. Later, after the government falls and military-aligned rebels seize control of the country, rebel forces head towards the village forcing many residents to flee to the country’s capital for safety. They include Agu’s mother and younger siblings, who his father pays to have driven out of the ravaged village.
Unfortunately, in a heart-breaking moment that would later shape the events of the story, Agu, his older brother and his father are denied a seat in the vehicle transporting their family out of the village and instead must fend for themselves when military forces close in. Agu eventually becomes separated from his family after their cottage is stormed and Agu finds himself lost in the jungle with few options and no means of support.
Enter the ruthless rebel leader known only as the commandant (Idris Elba), who recruits the young man. The commandant senses both Agu’s vulnerability to manipulation without a father figure and his potential motivation to seek vengeance against the same military forces that tore his family apart.
The commandant utilizes both of those weaknesses to striking effect in one of the movie’s most gory, jerk-inducing scenes. Agu, prompted by the commandant’s manipulative cheerleading, commits his first murder by cracking the skull of a weeping captured military officer.
The scene is harrowing and emotionally devastating as the viewer is made aware that Agu is as much a victim in this conflict as the man he is killing. It’s not just an innocence that is lost here, but Agu’s ethical and moral center.
The film was written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, and is based on a 2005 novel by Uzodinma Iweala. What Fukunaga does here is quite striking. He removes any hint of exposition or judgment on the conflict itself and simply looks unblinkingly at the toll it takes on the children who have to sleep to the soundtrack of MK-47 fire. The film seeks to examine the ways that war creates instability in the family structure.
To be sure, “Beasts” isn’t a perfect movie. There are moments that do seep into melodrama. The soundtrack music swells with sorrowful horns and weepy strings and it feels like the movie is trying to tug at our heartstrings a bit too aggressively. The ending is also a bit anticlimactic, given what we have seen Agu endure. It could perhaps have benefited from a bit more emotional release.
Nevertheless, it is still a fine film, powered by some excellent performances and masterful filmmaking by Fukunaga.
The film has drawn some controversy because it will be released both in select theaters and on Netflix (one of its co-producers), a first for the streaming content provider. This decision has my enthusiastic support. Every year, there are a handful or more of excellent, thought-provoking films that moviegoers are never exposed to because the theaters in their communities are playing Transformers 5 on four screens.
The saturation of blockbusters forces film lovers who want to see movies like “Beasts” to either travel hundreds of miles to out-of-the-way theaters or wait until the films are on video. Netflix’s strategy allows viewers to have access to an important piece of work and not have to be at the mercy of a theater chain’s willingness to show it.
Hopefully, the controversy does not prevent Oscar voters from recognizing some truly remarkable work here, especially from Elba and Attah, each of whom deserve serious consideration when award season comes around.