There is nothing easy about Beasts of No Nation. It’s a gut punch from start to finish with no apologies and no answers. It just moves, at times rather aimlessly, from frame to frame without much of a narrative place to go, and when everyone comes to an end, somewhat abruptly, we feel as though we’ve learned nothing. Why? We continue to ask ourselves, “Why?” and yet that question goes unanswered because, in all honesty, there is no answer. Cary Joji Fukunaga understood that. He understood that trying to comprehend, reason and answer the questions raised by the atrocities spilling all over the place within this tragic story would defy the reality of the ‘truth’.
We learn nothing because there is nothing to learn.
This seems like rather bleak, and it is, but it is also commendable because in any other hands, the story of Agu and his descent into rebel soldier madness would be laced with symbolic messages and forced ‘meaning’ and forced sentimentality and it would betray the reality of this story; it would betray Agu.
This story is hard, this story is harsh, but above all else, this story is honest.
Beasts of No Nation tells the story of young Agu, a happy child who is ripped from the life he knows when his village is raided by rebel soldiers and his family is slaughtered before his own eyes. With no one to turn to and nothing to return to, Agu is left in the hands of the rebels, and their leader, known only as Commandant, attempts to mold Agu like putty in his hands, creating loyal soldiers with nothing to lose. As Agu pushed forward in this new life chosen for him, he sees a world no child should see, and this begins to shape the man he’s slowly becoming.
Many have griped that this film doesn’t go anywhere, and I agree (obviously, since I already addressed it) but I want to reiterate that this feels so much like an honest interpretation of a child’s viewpoint of war. You have to place yourself within your protagonists POV, and as a child this all feels so aimless and unmoving. There is nowhere to go, since war is such a vast wasteland of aimlessness. Agu is swallowed up by everything around him and yet it never completely makes sense to him, leaving us a narrator who is incapable of rationalizing what he’s seeing. He tells it as he sees it, and what he sees is confused, chaotic and scary as hell.
Without the tremendous performance by Abraham Attah, this conveyance would not have worked. Not only is Attah’s performance the best I’ve seen from anyone all year, it is possibly the greatest child performance of all time. You can slowly watch his soul completely raped away from him, and he never once feels manipulated, forced or insincere. For this young man’s debut performance, it’s a shattering exploration of innocence lost. Idris Elba (who is also remarkable here) took all the awards attention (and it didn’t help that Jacob Tremblay broke out this year as well) but Attah is the heart and soul of this movie, and without him it would not have worked.
Beasts of No Nation is NOT an easy film to watch. In fact, it’s extremely hard. There are images I will never get rid of and insinuations that made my stomach sick, but what Fukunaga did here was give us an honest portrait of a reality we know very little about.
The truth hurts, doesn’t it?