The loss of innocence is one of cinema’s favourite themes, but it’s rarely because an AK-47 is aiming at someone’s head. Beasts of No Nation, a Netflix exclusive from True Detective director Cary Fukunaga, is a spellbinding yet harrowing parable about a nation’s destructive past and uncertain future, and a boy’s horrific journey across the thin line between them.
Witnessing the death of his entire family by his own government, the scared young Agu (Abraham Attah) flees to the jungle, where he encounters a battalion of rebels led by the fierce Commandment (Idris Elba). Instead of killing him, the Commandment sees a certain fire in the pre-pubescent boy, the kind of rage that would make for the perfect soldier. Baptised in a storm of blood and bullets, the newly-christened Agu finds meaning through violence and vengeance, still traumatised following the brutal end to his old life, and with the Commandment as his mentor, he embarks down a rabbit hole that burrows straight through the dark heart of his unnamed West African country.
Structured like a psychedelic road trip, Agu encounters many bizarre, testing, disgusting, and downright evil situations. Whether he’s being forced to kill an innocent man to prove his worth as a warrior, or to bend to his Commandment’s more perverse whims, Agu’s fledgling humanity is routinely endangered, but never fully compromised – thanks mainly to Attah’s astonishing performance, his clear eyes able to look straight past the camera lens and directly at us. His stare intermittently makes us uncomfortable, but always hopeful that Agu will get out of this unscathed. The truth, as we tragically know from the moment Agu surrenders what he has left of his boyhood, is that what deeds he sees done, and does himself, will scar him forever. These moments are underpinned by an incredibly beautiful yet restrained score by Dan Romer, the wriggling synths of which feel like they rise up from the very floor beneath you, and lifts the film to transcendent heights when instead it could be be easily wallowing in its own misery.
Cinema, when used to push lessons on us, can be condescending at best and boring at worst. But in order for us to really care, to truly get inside these important (if fictional) events and take away something important from experiencing them – be it from the comfort and safety of a cinema seat or, in Beasts of No Nation’s case, your own home – they must be shown to us from the inside-out. On his first drug trip, Agu hallucinates that the world around him has turned a lurid shade of pink-purple; war crimes suddenly take on an absurdist, surrealist form. Being a child soldier is a heinous truth – but Fukunaga understands that a fact is only one point on a vast spectrum.
But what is the point? Does the answer lie in the surface beauty of the film’s images, or in the career-best turn from Elba? No – because ultimately, there is no point. No point to the Commandments’ reign of intimidation, and none to Agu’s suffering. That is Fukunaga’s gift: throughout his work, there is a consistently numbing sense of failure against unbearable odds – but even in his darkest constructions, the faintest glimmer of good can be glimpsed between the harsh lines. It’s this approach that strips Beasts of No Nation of all sentimentality, leaving only exposed nerve endings of crackling emotion. It’s a dour, brutal movie that at times may leave you thinking what the point of it all is – but the point is that you’ll never turn away.