Most of the time we go to the movies to forget the world around us. To feel the troubles of debt, monotony, and Donald Trump wash away. But we mustn’t forget that often the movies are there to do the opposite. To shine a light on the realities of life in places we will never experience. Movies like Beasts of No Nation remind us that there is a world out there, and it’s a very grim one indeed.
But everything starts off rather light, in fact. So much so it reminded me of another film I quite adore—City of God by Fernando Meirelles. The beginning sees children playing in a desolate, sandy, dirty area, but who are surviving
, thanks to their natural childlike innocence. Living in a modern war-torn, unnamed West African country is only doable for a child when you can get by selling screen-less TV’s to Nigerian police and chopping down tree branches to playfully scam a few bucks. These are normal ways to survive for a child, but the story will go on to show how quickly that can change.
The story centers on a particular child, Agu (Abraham Atta), who behaves like any other child growing up in these conditions. He’s joyful and rambunctious, finding ways to pass the time without an iPad or PS4. Oh what it is to be a child, when you can pee on your brother while he bathes with little repercussion. Just like
This comes in the form of a towering Commandant (Idris Elba) who leads a unit of rebels that also includes a few child soldiers, of which Agu is now a part of. Elba gives monumental
performance ; he is a blunt force of nature that behaves like a predatory lion. Grand and majestic from a view, he is an aggressive specimen, animalistic when he needs to be, as he refuses to go easy on his young militiamen. He hones in on his prey and strikes with both words and physicality. Ruthless, he hopes to transform his young ones into versions of himself, continuing this vicious circle of life.
He capitalizes on something Agu has probably never felt so severely—anger. Commandant uses Agu’s newfound aggression to turn him into a killing machine, as devoid of humanity as the biggest man in the battalion. Desensitized he becomes a monstrous soldier, shooting and maiming to quench his thirst. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to watch a child take a machete to a man’s skull, so I won’t even try.
Scenes like that must be hard to envision, let alone film, but director Cary Fukunaga refuses to watch from the jungle. He and his camera invade that grim nature of war with a guerilla style that is as visceral as it is violent. Take a scene where Agu and others are raiding a home, and in one circular shot, you see Agu collapse before a woman he mistakes for his mom, then, distraught, he goes to a small girl being beaten, and back to the faux mom, when he puts a bullet in her head. Shooting such aggressive war scenes (shot on location in Ghana) and adding little music for ultra-realism takes a true sense of confidence as a filmmaker and knowing that it needs to be shown, regardless of the effect on the audience.
Attah gives a performance unheard of for a child actor , seamlessly transforming from typical child to desensitized killer. A final scene sees him talking to a reform counselor, his war-torn eyes staring her down as he vocalizes the reality of his world to her. Those eyes have seen so much and to convey that mindset at that young an age is no short of mind-blowing. Also like Fernando Meirelles, Fukunaga gets immense credit for working with Attah to bring this child to life. I don’t know what horrible things these directors are doing to bring this out in these 2nd graders, but keep on doing it . . . maybe.
Still, Nation is a movie that examines the reality of war through the most undesirable lens, with the most innocent of subjects, but no one watching should expect a movie about child soldiers to be anything but. That may be too hard for most people to sit through, let alone for 147 minutes, but very rarely do you get cinema this brutal and honest yet totally absorbing. I don’t use the phrase “tour de force” lightly, but Beasts of No Nation is not a light movie.