Netflix set the bar for its exclusive and original productions with House of Cards, and its first attempt at feature films is no less impressive. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, who is famous for True Detective Season 1, Beasts of No Nation tells the story of a young African boy named Agu (Abraham Attah) who lives in an intentionally anonymous and politically unstable African nation. Refugees from nearby regions stream into his remote village, and although he is vaguely aware of impending troubles, he is as happy as any other eight year old. The village receives news that soldiers are coming, and Agu’s mother and baby sister are quickly sent to the capitol before they arrive and kill his father and brother. He narrowly escapes and encounters the rebel army, led by a charismatic and manipulative man known only as the Commandant (Idris Elba). He is quickly converted into a child soldier and experiences a variety of horrifying experiences that change him forever.
Sounds pretty generic, right? When you strip Beasts down to its parts, it seems like a straightforward war flick. Bang bang shoot shoot bullet bullet gun, death sucks, nobody should experience such things, let alone a small child, etc. And truth be told, it doesn’t bring anything truly revolutionary to the genre; Hotel Rwanda (2004) covers most of the same bases. Yet Beasts of No Nation is told in such a way that it’s much more than something you may have watched in AP World History.
For starters, it doesn’t feel like it was created to raise awareness and educate the way Machine Gun Preacher (2011) did. For those who haven’t seen it, basically a redneck finds jesus, sees the Sudanese conflict on TV, and decides that he wants to take matters into his own hands. It’s actually not that bad; the protagonist is Gerard Butler and he’s exactly the kind of badass you’d expect him to be, and it does justice to the injustices that occurred (and are still occurring) in Sudan. Unfortunately and ever-so-ironically, it’s too preachy: it’s basically an R-rated, feature-length promotional video for UNICEF.
Beasts of No Nation is the antithesis of that. Although it is heavily based on things that really happen in Central and Sub-Saharan Africa (think Kony 2012), there is no mention of where anything happens. Agu’s village is “the village,” his mother and sister are sent to “the capitol,” the commander of the rebels is “The Commandant,” etc. All of the factions mentioned also don’t exist. What’s left is not a CNN tragedy but a greater and more emotional journey of forced adulthood and the worst aspects of humanity. For fuck’s sake, he is forced to chop an innocent man’s skull, given an AK and trained to shoot civilians, fed everything from alcohol and cigarettes to hard drugs – really anything but actual food, and brainwashed to serve a man that makes the devil himself look like Roger Rabbit. War movies from WW1 to Vietnam and all the way to Afghanistan have historically portrayed a lot of horrible things, but not quite in the complete and humanistic way that Beasts does.
The structure, too, is surprisingly generic… and I didn’t mind it at all. Beasts opens with Agu messing around his village and being generally happy and innocent. It’s obvious that Fukunaga wants you to be invested in Agu’s character so that you are invested in his wellbeing, hence increasing the impact of every subsequent horror that he experiences. Except Agu is such an adorably playful kid, and even the signs of nearby conflict don’t stop him from being constantly ridiculously happy. The first five minutes of the film focus on him trying to sell a TV with no screen to UN soldiers for food rations. Depressing as this sounds, he claims “this is Imagination TV! It’s the best!” and acts out a series of channels with his friends. Human, effective, and beautiful, it’s an incredible way to set up a story that’s in such stark contrast with the remainder of it.
And how could you not be moved when the actors are as good as Idris Elba and Abraham Attah? The former has portrayed an impressive array of characters – from an office worker (The Office) to Nelson Mandela (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) (2013) – but his maximum potential and range still clearly haven’t been reached yet. They say even Hitler had a nice side; he was a vegetarian and loved dogs! The Commandant has not a trace of one. He is probably the least humane person alive, dead, real, or fictional. From manipulation to rape, there is nothing this man won’t do, and he couldn’t care less while he did it. And then there’s Abraham Attah… no one knows much about him because he’s only thirteen years old and Beasts is his first acting gig ever, but this kid is either a real victim of war and channeled it terrifically, or he’s one of the best child actors the world has seen since Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) (2006).
The cherry on top of this beautiful work of cinema is the cinematography. If you’ve seen True Detective Season 1, you might remember the crazy color palette (among a long list of other things). If you thought it looked good in the deep south, you need to see it in the jungles of Ghana. Fukanaga, on top of being director, was also the cinematographer on both projects, and the visual similarities are noticeable without being distracting. The best way to describe it is that it’s darkly soft, like burnt paper. Which doesn’t make any sense since there’s so much green everywhere… but that’s still what it looks like. A more subtle version of sepia that doesn’t look like an Instagram filter maybe? This is just the default color scheme, and it’s frequently swapped out for others like grungy neon, rich burgundy, and dirty brown. Especially awesome is a scene where Agu is given some kind of drug for the first time and sent to raid a village. All of the foliage suddenly turns soft pink, like cherry blossoms. It’s a surreal way to represent his intoxication, but it also represents his traumatized mental state. It also looks sick. It’s like when Kill Bill: Volume One (2001) suddenly turns black and white during the Crazy 88 fight scene, except even cooler (sorry Tarantino, I still love you).
Fukunaga is merciful enough to give us the happy ending that we needed after such a rough journey: Agu and many of his ex-comrades are taken to an orphanage/rehabilitation center where they are fed, clothed, and educated. He is then introduced to a counselor that tries to open him up to discussing his experiences. Here he delivers a monologue that sums up the entire movie: “I saw terrible things and I did terrible things. So if I’m talking to you, it will make me sad and it will make you too sad. In this life… I just want to be happy in this life. If I’m telling this to you… you will think that I am some sort of beast or devil. I am all of these things… but I also have a mother, father, brother and sister once. They loved me.” Is it so much to ask for, to be happy and loved? Isn’t that what it means to be human? Beasts of No Nation packs a hard punch, but at its core is this innocent and simple question, and it will speak to you on a level that many movies couldn’t dare to.
Written by William Park