Poor Agu (Abraham Attah.) A young African boy caught up in a war on his own soil that American youngsters can neither understand nor comprehend, he is forced to commit unconscionable acts in order to survive. Fighting as a child soldier against a faceless enemy he has no real understanding of, Agu has little time to mourn the senseless slaughter of his family as he must prove himself to the charming and predatory Commandant (Idris Elba.) As he learns to be a fighter and a murderer, Agu must face the death of everything human in him, and his realization that being reunited with his remaining relatives is becoming increasingly distant and unlikely with each passing second.
Beasts of No Nation is based on a novel by the same title, which I bought on Amazon about a year prior but just couldn’t get into. People talk about ‘first world problems’ so much that it becomes kind of a cliche, but there is still a grain of truth to it. Growing up in America can be hard, unbelievably hard- drugs, mental illness, family strife, gang warfare, bullies, and poverty are just a few of the hurdles many American kids face every day, but there’s a marked difference between us and a kid like Agu. We know with some degree of clarity that we aren’t going to be invaded or have our homes destroyed in all-out war. We don’t have to worry we will come home and find a crater where are house was, and piles of ash where the people we called ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ once stood.
The film adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s slim novel takes us into a world where safety is excruciatingly uncertain and the only thing between a relatively comfortable childhood and the wreckage of innocence is a group of soldiers keeping up a barrier between ‘home’ and ‘out there.’ This is done with somber immediacy, and held up to scrutiny by Attah’s haunting performance as a boy for whom tragedy becomes a long-standing part of himself. Attah’s astonishing dramatic turn makes his transformation from ordinary goofball preteen to psychologically broken casualty of war completely believable.
The violence in this movie doesn’t have a whole lot of stylized varnish or frills, the difference between this and a Quentin Tarantino movie is daunting, though both are worthy cinematic excursions in their own way. Pedophilia, carnage, wartime rape, and the mass killing of innocents are on naked display, and we see how thin a line there is between a normal person and a person who commits horrific acts is.
Sometimes, all it takes is a push for a everyday citizen, even a child, to act in self-interest and slaughter another human being. We are all just slightly advanced animals. Anyone who thinks we’re morally superior to wild creatures is either a fool or simply mistaken. Agu is not a monster, he does what he needs to to survive and we wonder how many of the men- boys, really- in Commandant’s troupe (many of which are participating in rape, child killing and other wartime atrocities) were just scared little kids unable to hold a gun at the beginning of this long, bloody war.
The script of this movie is incisive and well-written in that like Agu, we are never quite sure what is going on or who is fighting who. This deliberate vagueness gives the film a kind of disorienting feeling that was a good choice on the part of the filmmaker. The only connection to the white journalists and outsiders to this war is the people with cameras who snap pictures of Agu as he walks down a dirt road with an assault weapon. Agu returns their gaze with an appropriately uncomprehending look.
We see the brainwashing process- the pleading man Agu is forced to kill with a machete is obviously responsible for slaughtering his family, because why not? Agu is given drugs and groomed with smarmy words and bullshit political speeches. He is beaten senseless and molested by the Commendant. His only friend, the silent Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) feels for him but is in exactly the same position he is. We also see how the wealthy profit from a boy’s war, though exactly when and how we are unsure- like Agu, we are cast into an unfathomable situation with very little background information.
Beasts of No Nation is a disturbing movie, but it succeeds in making a conflict we hear about secondhand in the papers feel a little bit closer. Appropriately confusing, erratic, and sometimes downright unwatchable (in a good way,) the film will make you think and, cliched as it is, appreciate what we have in this country compared to what those in war-torn regions only dream of. Safety is relative (especially with the number of shootings in this country spiking) but Agu lives in a reality that, God willing, none of us will have to experience first hand.