As the opening credits of Beasts of No Nation role you can’t help but feel that you are watching something quite monumental. The film is the first film to be released exclusively on the popular streaming service Netflix and is a huge moment in the history of film distribution.
Directed by True Detective director Cary Fukunga and starring Luther star Idris Elba Beasts of No Nation is the story of a young African boy named Agu who lives in an unnamed African country in the midst of a civil war. Agu, innocent and family orientated has his life flipped upside down when the military invade and destroy his village leaving him to fend for himself amid all the chaos. As he runs to forests Agu is captured by a group of child soldiers under the command of Idris Elba’s Commandant. Physically intimidating, explosive and charismatic Commadant is the role Elba was born to play. After a few days of brutal initiations tests and training exercises Agu himself is taken under his wing as a soldier.
Beasts of No Nation will at times prove too harrowing a watch for some. Fukunga’s camera work, like it has so often done in the past becomes a character in itself- highlighting the brutality of war and the lost innocence that comes with it. One sequence where Agu is forced to kill his first victim as a right of passage becomes increasingly difficult to watch as you witness the innocence disappear out of his once so bright and loving eyes. Whilst other sequences feel inspired by Werner Herzog, one where we see the faction march onto a town under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs feels particularly nightmarish.
Fukunga must also take credit for such a powerful script as well- Beasts of No Nation is no typical tale of a boy being forced into the adult world too soon, the juxtaposition between the opening scenes and the film’s opening scenes and its closing moments are enough to break even the strongest spirits. This feels like a true descent into hell, but one that doesn’t seem to offer any sort of hope either. As the film comes to its climax it becomes increasingly clear there is to be no silver lining here, despite how much we may want one.
Much award buzz surrounds Elba and rightfully so but the real beating heart of the movie and the break out performance comes from young Abaraham Attah as Agu. His child like innocence in the opening phases felt reminiscent of Quvenzhane Wallis’ outstanding debut in Beasts of the Southern Wild three years ago, whilst his performance in the latter stage of the movie showed a complexity one would not expect from such a young actor.
Beasts of No Nation will not prove an easy watch- it is a harrowing movie both physically and emotionally but thanks to two magentic central performances from Attah and Elba the journey is a little easier to bear. Netflix have knocked the ball out of the park with their first movie and one can’t imagine them topping it anytime soon.