In Beasts of No Nation, the Nightmare is Bearing Witness

The overarching plot of Beasts of No Nation is fairly formulaic, even sadly predictable. War comes to a small African village; a child’s family is killed; the child survives, but only to become the soldier and the murderer he once hated.

But oversimplifying the story completely minimizes the humanity at the heart of the movie’s details. The movie centers around a young boy name Agu (played by Abraham Attah), the son of a teacher in a small West African village. Since war has not yet actively found its way to where he lives, Agu is first introduced running around his village, earning money wherever he can, and generally being a good kid. But then, war finally arrives. Agu stays behind with the men of his village to protect their home, along with his father, older brother, and grandfather, and after being discovered by government troops, they are accused of being rebel spies, and lined up to be executed. Agu and his brother escape while his father pleads for their lives, but three short bursts from Kalashnikovs later, Agu is left fleeing for his life, alone.

Beasts of No Nation is not a fun movie to watch. This is in fact the reason it has taken me so long to gather my thoughts before reviewing this film. Watching the execution of a boy’s entire family is indeed painful, but it doesn’t even begin to approach the emotional strain we feel as we helplessly witness his own transformation into a ruthless executioner. You will never be comfortable as the movie unfolds—violently—before your eyes, and you shouldn’t be. Netflix has once again outdone itself by creating an all too real environment to tell this haunting, heart wrenching story.

As he wanders through the jungle, his graphic “Stay Cool” t-shirt becomes a bitter reminder of his lost childhood and centuries of imperialism and capitalism. Details like this one fill out the story of Beasts of No Nation, providing layers of depth to our protagonist’s painful world. Alone, Agu is captured by rebels of the Native Defense Force, and he is offered the chance by its Commandant (Idris Elba) to become a soldier, join the rebel militia’s ranks, and avenge his family’s murder—Agu accepts. Those not strong enough to pass the militia’s training are simply executed immediately; only the resilient are allowed to become child soldiers under the Commandant. Agu passes all the trials and is tasked with carrying ammunition during the ambush of an enemy convoy. The convoy is massacred except for a lone surviving, unarmed engineer. In order to pass his final test, Agu is ordered to kill the engineer with a machete. Agu’s mental conflict during this scene is particularly poignant, as he weighs the knowledge that he too will be murdered if he doesn’t kill the man, against his fear of what God will think of him if he does. He struggles to muster enough hate against the man for what happened to his family. There is a pause. The cold sharp steel of the machete comes down into the engineer’s head, as the camera hovers on the victim’s face, the shock and then the life draining from him. Agu pulls the blade free and brings it down again. And again. And again….

As painful as it is to watch these moments of brutal violence, they quickly become normalized, part of war’s routine. We even begin to look forward to the sounds of explosions and the bullets whistling past us, because it is the moments before and after the action we most dread. The silent moments, the ones with all the maimed corpses of the dead and dying, the ones where we are forced to look back at the horrors just unleashed: these become the unbearable stretches of the film. These are the terrors that no one, especially a child, should ever have to live. These are the moments we can’t forget no matter how much we try as we see the child in Agu slowly die and a shadow of a man replace him.

The cinematography (Cary Joji Fukunaga) and sound editing (Glenfield Payne et al.) in Beasts of No Nation allow the viewer to find beauty in unexpected places, though the ambiance of discomfort and suspense is sustained throughout. The camera angles always keep the viewer on edge, making us fear even what is beyond the frame. The thumping base often mimics the human heart in moments of urgency, drowning out all else. Still, the acting is what makes this movie so profound. Elba is stunning as the Commandant, equally gifted at eliciting anger, hatred and even something akin to love. He is both a father figure and a captor, a savior and an executioner. His performance is passionate and embodies so much humanity and character depth that it is hard to believe he is indeed acting. The true star however is Attah as Agu. Casting a young actor with the emotional range the story of a child soldier requires might seem daunting, yet Attah is superbly accomplished. The pain of his life, the happiness he gets from small successes, the fear of God and man, the loyalties of friendship—these are all present in Attah’s performance. It is in fact often hard to remember you aren’t watching a documentary, an effect which in turn lends the film immense verisimilitude, and emotional power.

Beasts of No Nation is a movie as complex as it is profound, straddling the line between documentary and drama. As I watched this film, I felt the singularly most uncomfortable I have ever felt watching a movie and yet it contains some of the most memorable scenes I have ever witnessed. And perhaps therein lies the power of this film. You don’t feel like someone watching a movie while it is playing. You feel like a witness. A witness to the terrors of war and the horror of what even the most innocent child can do when there is no other choice. This is a film that we don’t want to watch, but we all need to.

Grade: A                                                                                                                         A strong story with real and lasting emotional and mental impact – it is nightmare, beautifully executed.

 Rating: NR                                                                                                                  Because there is no rating to accurately illustrate the horror of PTSD.

 Beasts of No Nation, Netflix                                                                          Runtime: 137 minutes