In a recent interview with Anne Thompson of indiewire.com, Cary Fukunaga revealed that the topic of child soldiers was something he was ardent about since graduating from film school in 1999. A decade after graduating, he directed his first feature film. “Sin Nombre,” a dramatic thriller about a Honduran immigrant, gave the film community its first sign of the director’s greatness. But I could not have foreseen the towering achievement of “Beasts of No Nation.” Fukunaga’s long-held passion for this subject matter is on full display in every frame of this film.
“Beasts” is adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s 2006 novel of the same name, about an African boy named Agu who finds himself at the center of a poorly-organized resistance army in a violent civil war. Like the book, the film doesn’t say in what country the story takes place, but that approach allows the film’s center to be personal rather than political.
Agu is played by newcomer Abraham Attah, who is as natural a first-time actor as I have ever seen. Through the worst of experiences, Agu sees the decline of the resistance with a calm bitterness, a side effect of the horrible things he’s being forced to do. He is shepherded by ‘the Commandant’ (Idris Elba), the adult leader of the young battalion. The Commandant seems wise in his own demented way, but as the story unfolds, there is a supreme gloom to his psyche that only Elba could have pulled off.
Fukunaga’s direction and writing cannot be understated. The beginning of the film helps us understand Agu’s family, who are fervent believers in God. This introduction is not in the book, but it provides a foundation for Agu’s narration, in which he goes through a crisis of faith. It’s amazing to see how this narration and Attah’s on-screen persona as Agu work in concert with one another. There’s a striking sequence where he travels through a trench of red mud and contemplates that he can only pray to his missing mother, now that he cannot feel God’s presence. It’s reminiscent of the best theology scenes in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”
The cat-and-mouse game of control between Agu and the Commandant is a story you can’t help but get lost in. It’s easy to distance yourself as a viewer from this kind of a situation in a third-world country, but Fukunaga’s sensitive direction and the performances of his two leading actors make that distance impossible.
In the first few days of shooting the film, Fukunaga’s original cameraman pulled a hamstring, forcing him off the project. Fukunaga stepped in, so he was literally behind the camera for the majority of the movie. His cinematography is gorgeous. It does not glorify or glamorize the violence, but it does make vibrant use of color and composition to enhance the frantic nature of the action. This contributes to the intensity of Agu’s emotional arc throughout the film.
The other aspect of the film most worth noting is that it is Netflix’s first wholly original narrative release. It has been released in select theaters nationwide, but it can be seen online by anyone with a Netflix subscription. This new release model may prove to be too revolutionary for Hollywood for the time being, but I am so thrilled that a movie this powerful can be seen by as many people as possible.
The final moments of “Beasts” address the title in a revealing way, leaving Attah the enormous task of tackling many of the film’s themes in one speech. Not only is he up to the challenge, but that moment is what pulls the whole film together. It is what emboldens me to put an exclamation mark on this statement: “Beasts of No Nation” is the best film of the year!
“Beasts of No Nation” is now playing in select theaters nationwide and available to stream on Netflix.
(Unrated, contains mature thematic elements including strong violence, language, suggestive content and drug use, all involving children)