by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Cast: Idris Elba, Kurt Egyiawan, Abraham Attah
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 92% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In an unnamed African country, a young boy gets separated from his family and is trained to be a soldier for a guerilla combat unit.

It’s been said – I don’t remember by whom, maybe François Truffaut – that there is no such thing as an anti-war film because combat scenes are inherently thrilling.  Look at the D-Day landing in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.  Brutal and horrific…but visceral and powerful and exciting at the same time.  Squint at those scenes a little bit, think about the ultimate sacrifice made by so many soldiers for their country, and it’s almost a recruitment film.

There are, as always, exceptions to the rule.  I challenge anyone to watch the Russian film Come and See, about the experiences of a young soldier during World War II, and come away feeling anything but dismay and disgust at the institution of war.

Beasts of No Nation is also an exception.  Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (No Time to Die, co-writer of It [2017]), it features numerous combat scenes involving pre-teen boys firing machine guns, tossing grenades, and wielding machetes on men, women, and children.  The movie is fictional, but the experiences are taken from true-life stories of real boys who were kidnapped by rebel armies.

The young boy in this story is Agu (Abraham Attah in a brilliant, subtle performance).  He’s maybe 11 or 12 years old.  In the opening scenes, we see he and his family are poor, but happy.  He plays with his friends.  They try to sell an “imagination TV” to anyone who will listen to their pitch.  (What is an imagination TV?  …use your imagination.)

One day rebel forces march into town.  Or government forces.  It’s never made quite clear, and I think that’s on purpose.  In this unnamed country, one side is as bad as the other, so it really makes no difference.  His mother and sister are whisked out of town to relative safety, while Agu and his father and brother are left behind.  However, he is soon separated from them (in a scene that reminded me oddly of Empire of the Sun, though even more traumatic) and he runs into the jungle where he is soon captured by a roving combat squad led by a man known simply as the Commandant (Idris Elba, in another brilliant performance).  The Commandant sees potential in Agu and takes him under his wing.

Here’s where it starts to get disturbing.  Agu is trained to be a soldier.  This involves standard training about how to move in the field, but it also involves a brutal hazing ritual where he must run between two columns of men who beat him with heavy sticks as he passes.  Make it through and you graduate.  Get knocked out and…well, you don’t want to get knocked out.  He and other boys are subjected to a cloud of smoke and haze created by burning gunpowder.

Why do this?  From the army’s standpoint, a young boy makes an ideal soldier.  He requires little pay, eats less food than a grown man, never questions orders, and provides unswerving loyalty in return.  The trick is teaching them to kill on command.  For Agu, this part of his training comes when a prisoner pleading for his life is brought before him.  The Commandant hands him a machete.  “This man is with the people who killed your family,” he says.  The scene is simply shot, but it’s horrifying to see Agu’s eyes go blank as he stares at the prisoner.  The culmination of this scene is one of the most disturbing visuals I’ve seen since Requiem for a Dream.  The most chilling part is Agu’s voiceover, which we hear at many other points in the film: “God, I have killed a man.  It is the worst sin…but I am knowing, too, it is the right thing to be doing.”  Brr.

Whether Agu finds redemption or rescue or whatever, I leave to you to discover.  I will say the movie looks marvelous.  Director Fukunaga served as his own cinematographer AND camera operator (after the first operator tore a hammy on his first day).  It’s well made, directed with a sure hand and a fine visual instinct.  I don’t want to give away too much about the ending, but watch Agu’s face.  As he speaks, you can see the blank, flat stare of someone who has seen enough to know he’s seen too much.  It’s the face of someone who has been through more than any of us should be put through.  And he’s not even old enough to shave yet.  That’s what makes Beasts of No Nation a truly anti-war film.

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