“All of you that have never been listened to before and have seen your family killed, huh, you now have something that stands for you. You now have something that stands for you!”
Child soldiers in Africa isn’t really the kind of subject matter to get me interested in seeing a movie. I know it’s an important issue and any sort attention raised is probably a good thing to help combat the problem. But I find it hard to commit to a movie that I know is going to be a downer. But, when the right people are involved in front of and behind the camera, any subject matter is going to pique my interest. Last year, director Cary Fukunaga redefined the idea of a limited series, TV drama with True Detective. And ever since The Wire, Idris Elba has been a reason to watch anything. So putting those together was more than enough for me to look past the issue-ness and downer-ness, and watch Beasts of No Nation.
In war torn West Africa, the fighting hasn’t quite reached the small village of Agu (Abraham Attah), but it’s not far away. Living with his parents, brothers and catatonic grandfather, the pre-teen Agu makes the most of life in his poverty stricken village. But when war comes to town, his father can only afford to send Agu’s mother and infant brother to safety in the city. As the military takes over, Agu’s father, grandfather and older brother are all shot and killed by the army, with Agu escaping into the jungle.
Discovered by a group of rebels lead by the Commandant (Idris Elba), Agu is taken into the fold and recruited as a child soldier. At first he his sickened and scared by the atrocities that seem like business as usual for the rebels, but soon, his need for the security of family sees Agu buying into the Commandant’s propaganda and fatherly influence. Getting Agu hooked on heroin also helps the Commandant wield his influence.
Beasts of No Nation is brutal. And I think with the subject matter, it needs to be. It never shies away from the horrible, horrible things these young boys are coerced into doing. It’s graphic and sickening and jarring in a way that shows this terrible situation for what it is. It also doesn’t shy away from the fact that even if these kids survive and find a way out, they’re probably traumatised forever.
Another great decision this movie makes is to expand the world in segments. Once Agu is fully indoctrinated into his rebel battalion and we have accepted the Commandant’s absolute power, Beasts of No Nation pulls back to show a wider view of its world. A wider view where the Commandant is at the mercy of another absolute power. While Agu may receive little promotions that seem huge in his own isolated world, we the audience get to see how pointless it all really is. Which only adds to the tragedy of the story.
Idris Elba is great as the charismatic, violent, ruthless, vindictive leader, but Idris Elba being great was no real surprise. He’s at the point of being so reliable that any performance less than incredible is a disappointment. What was a surprise, was Abraham Attah as Agu. This kid has to react to some pretty horrendous acts. He has to perform more than a few that are even worse. And he totally sells it every single time. A child actor of 10ish holding their own is impressive enough. A child actor of 10ish outshining someone like Elba again and again is just phenomenal.