To watch Beasts of No Nation is to be confronted — bombarded, really — with the facts of your immediate physical reality, which likely encompasses an air-conditioned movie theater or the home in which you live with your loved ones. You will become increasingly aware of these things as the film and its protagonist, a young boy called Agu, progress through the gauntlet of human misery that is a modern-day West African nation at war with itself. To call this journey heartbreaking feels almost crass, but what better word exists for the experience of witnessing a prepubescent boy coerced into splitting a man’s skull with a machete? The world depicted in Beasts is almost certainly like nothing you’ve ever seen. It will leave you appalled, restless, upset, and emotionally disheveled, but it will also leave you grateful that you do not live inside a topsy-turvy reality in which children grow up to be cold-blooded killing machines, if they are lucky enough to grow up at all.
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts opens with a shot through the hollow frame of a television set, as if to draw attention to the fact that what we are watching cannot be turned on and off with the flip of a switch. Agu (Abraham Attah) and his young friends are attempting to pawn the piece of junk off as an “imaginary TV,” and they finally get a taker when a Nigerian soldier takes pity on them. Though the boys obviously live in abject poverty, there’s something genuinely warm about this scene and those that immediately follow; the people in this village do not have much, but they are buoyed by family, religion, and the simple pleasures of a burping contest around the dinner table.
This fragile sense of harmony is short-lived. When soldiers from the national army invade the village, Agu’s mother is whisked away, his father and brother are unceremoniously executed, and he is left to fend for himself in the vast wilderness of West Africa, where poisonous plants are the least of his worries. Caught once more in the midst of gunfire, Agu is captured by a unit of mercenary rebels comprised mostly of young boys and led by a man they address as Commandant. Played by the intense, imposing Idris Elba, this Commandant is as skilled at the art of indoctrination as he is at warfare — probably more so, actually. His first interaction with Agu is a master class in neurolinguistic manipulation; after forcing the terrified boy to repeat “Yes, sir!” roughly a dozen times, he literally pounds a box of ammunition into his head to drive the point home. The initiation rituals that follow are harrowing in their own way, each peeling off a piece of Agu’s humanity as if it were just another layer of onion.
There are few sympathetic adult characters in this film, though Elba’s Commandant is certainly the most vile. He is a man who understands the world only in terms of power, and he instills this mentality in his impressionable charges. “All of you that have never been listened to before,” he shouts when they are assembled before him, “you now have something that stands for you. This is your defense.” It is redundant to note that a man who employs child soldiers is wicked, but the Commandant’s crimes are compounded by the fact that he presents these children with false hope. “Even the best leader, sometimes he must know how to be a follower,” he tells Agu, though later in the film he revolts when he is stripped of his power by a superior officer. Elba deserves credit for finding the slivers of humanity within the uniquely cruel authority figure he is tasked with playing. The reason he — and likely his real-life counterparts — employ children is simple: they are vulnerable and insecure, and it’s easiest to hide those traits from someone who’s half your size and in need of a role model.
But this film is really about Agu, and Fukunaga never shies away from showcasing his transformation from boy into beast in the harshest light imaginable. The most viscerally devastating scene is the one in which he kills his first man with a machete, though this merely triggers a chain of brutality that’s all the more awful for how casual it has become. You can read the agony on the boy’s face before he finally lifts that machete, but this turns into a dead-eyed stare he shares with his friend Strika as the war goes on. “I am thinking the only way not to be fighting anymore is to be dying,” he says in a voiceover, having just shot a woman with an assault rifle at point-blank range. “If this war is ever going to end, I cannot go back to doing child things.”
The gruesome imagery of war — of which there is as much here as in any film in recent memory — contrasts with the stunningly gorgeous scenery of Eastern Ghana, where the film was principally shot. Fukunaga also worked as cinematographer, and he uses wide shots of the natural scenery as both an antidote and a counterpoint to the bloodshed he shows up close. The vastness of such shots is not lost on the viewer. It only serves to underscore the scope of the war, which seems to go on for endless miles and without any hope of relief.
Beasts may come with a few glimmers of hope amidst all the carnage, but the impression it leaves is not one of optimism. To put it in stark terms, this is a film about the systematic destruction of a young boy’s humanity, and even the happiest of endings would not be able to change what is lost along the way. The best way to approach a story like this is simply to not look away, as tempting as it may be.