In war-torn West Africa, nine-year-old Agu (Abraham Attah) escapes the massacre of his family, only to become the protégé of a charismatic rebel leader (Idris Elba), who schools him in the brutal ways of the rebel militia.
After eight attention-grabbing episodes of True Detective’s first season and a Jane Eyre adaptation, Cary Fukunaga returns to the themes of brutality, violence and corrupted innocence of his breakthrough film, Sin Nombre, with this powerful adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel about a ‘boy soldier’ caught up in the bloody conflict of an unnamed West African country.
With the UN barely holding back the tide of civil war, nine-year-old Agu (Attah) flees the massacre of his family by rebel soldiers, only to run straight into the clutches of the militia’s charismatic Commandant (Elba), who adopts the boy and begins to train him in the ways of soldiery – including the massacre of anyone believed to be sympathetic to government forces. As the Commandant’s men (and boys) trudge towards a showdown with the enemy, white UN vehicles glide by like ghosts, unable – or unwilling – to intervene. The parallels with Rwanda, Darfur and too many other African conflicts are obvious, and the unfolding tragedy is all the more unbearable because, rather than replaying some historical event, Agu’s plight is an ongoing reality for thousands of boys in conflicts around the world.
Idris Elba, too big for television but with an unproven ability to carry a film, finds himself once again caught between the small and big screens, as Beasts of No Nation becomes a “Netflix original”, with only a limited theatrical release. You can see what the kudos-hungry streaming service saw in the project: like Long Walk to Freedom, it’s such an obvious ‘Oscar bait’ film, it might as well be titled For Your Consideration. Yet for all its worthiness, creative flair and technical prowess, the story may prove too much for Academy voters – not to mention Netflix viewers – to stomach. Still, Attah gives a preternaturally assured performance, and Elba is a commanding, formidable presence.
Fukunaga’s steely-eyed yet sensitive adaptation adopts the novel’s first-person approach, portraying the carnage from Agu’s point of view, allowing us to observe the corrupting forces preying upon the young boy’s psyche. Only once does Fukunaga allow himself to look away – no other approach seems possible in a mainstream film – but even then, what he elects not to show proves no less horrific than the film’s more harrowing moments. It’s one of many astute judgments in a searingly powerful, unflinchingly brutal and almost unbearably bleak film.
Writer-producer-director-cinematographer Fukunaga proves himself to be one of modern cinema’s most strikingly versatile talents with this unflinching portrayal of a boy soldier in a brutal, bloody conflict, anchored by commanding performances from Idris Elba and 14-year-old newcomer Abraham Attah. ★★★★