“Beasts of No Nation” is a cinematic triumph. Writer, director and cinematographer Cary Fukunaga, director of season one of “True Detective,” tells the tale of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy whose life is shattered in the midst of an African civil war.
Lost and desperate, Agu joins a regime of rebels led by a man who is only referred to as Commandant (Idris Elba). The character study sees Agu transform into a ruthless and efficient soldier, losing any trace of the innocence he once had. Dour yet dazzling, “Beasts of No Nation” is a visceral experience, one that audiences won’t forget any time soon.
The protagonist is played by a relatively unknown child actor. Attah captures Agu’s descent as he learns to kill, rape, pillage and conquer anything and anyone that stands in the way of him and the rebels. It’s heartbreaking to watch, especially when considering how innocent and terrified he was when the war, and film, started. Throughout the film he repeatedly asks God to look out for his mother that he is separated from and considers what God thinks of his sins.
Attah’s performance is one of controlled intensity that few adult actors could pull off. It would be a shame if Attah didn’t receive attention come Oscar season. Speaking of Oscars, Idris Elba is incredible as the Commandant of the rebel squad. Stripped of all the charisma and charm that Elba usually carries, he plays a manipulative and sadistic father figure to Agu, forcing him to assimilate to the lifestyle of a rebel warrior. One minute he’s sympathetic and almost loving to Agu – the next, he’s forcing Agu to kill an innocent man that might be a spy for the enemy.
It’s Elba’s best work since the British crime series “Luther” and further proof that he’s one of the best actors around. Fukunaga does an excellent job of putting the viewer in the middle of the madness. His camera likes close-ups of sweaty, dirty skin, whether it be on post-battle soldiers or terrified civilians hiding from a tank.
Fukunaga loves his long tracking shots. Consider a single take where Agu and his fellow soldiers raid a house and find a woman hiding in a closet. Agu hugs the woman, believing he found his mother, only to realize that it’s not her. One of Agu’s comrades proceeds to rape the woman and an enraged Agu shoots her in the head, frustrated by his misconception.
It’s a shocking scene in a movie full of devastating moments, barely offering enough time for the viewer to catch their breath. The pacing could be a little tighter, considering that it’s two and a half hours of heavy, brutal storytelling. Still, it’s a homerun for Fukunaga. It’s rare to see a film this personal and this different nowadays, let alone it being good. It’s a little long and not for the faint of heart, but no matter. “Beasts of No Nation” is haunting and beautiful, filled with life and energy.