There has never been a war movie like “Beasts of No Nation.” The guerrilla war on view here, primordial, hallucinatory, savage, taking place in an unnamed West African country riven by conflict, is seen entirely through the eyes of a child soldier.
Supposedly some 300,000 children are fighting in conflicts all over the globe at this very moment. Yet other than images that appear in the media of youngsters in fatigues staring out from underneath large helmets and toting fearsome assault rifles, far too little attention has been paid to this appalling phenomenon.
The movie, grim as it is, pulls you into an hallucinatory apocalypse. It makes you watch a loss of innocence and a fight to reclaim childhood by one bright-eyed, frightened boy.
The film derives from a critically acclaimed 2005 novel by American-born Nigerian Uzodinma Iweala. In writing, directing and photographing this film version, Cary Joji Fukunaga (HBO’s “True Detective,” the film “Sin Nombre”) vaults to the front line of international directors with serious issues on their minds.
For all the film’s horrors, it’s an astonishingly beautiful work. Fukunaga’s camera searches the fableistic jungles for signs of grace and vitality while Dan Romer’s music has a haunted, almost peaceful quality in the background. The battles, while utterly genuine, feel at the same time unreal.
Again the point of view is that of a small boy’s. He sees and hears things differently than an adult soldier. Levels of reality blur for him.
This protagonist is named Agu (an astonishing 13-year-old Ghananian non-actor, Abraham Attah). The film begins deceptively as you watch him play imaginatively with an older brother and younger friends in his ancestral village.
You are told a war is raging and a refugee camp lies nearby, but such troubles seem several valleys away. But then, just after the men send the women and small children away, an army sweeps into town with dire consequences: It’s easier to shoot people than sort out who might or might not be a rebel.
Agu finds himself on the run in the forest, starving and thirsty, when a company of young rebels take him in. Its leader is the formidable Commandant (Idris Elba, scary good), who subjects his young charges to a combination of bullying, protection and fiery speeches about their mission against a corrupt government and army.
Being fed and feeling a part of this new “family,” Agu falls into a role as soldier-trainee, a role made that easier by his friendship with a mute fellow recruit Strika (Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom).
All his social patterns and moral values get disrupted by the Commandant. He is made to kill a man — the film’s strongest and most repellent scene — go into ambushes and raids, take prisoners — acting in a sense like the platoon acted in his own village — and go numb when confronted by violence and horror.
Yet he never ceases to be his own age; he never ceases to be a child. He is surviving and that’s important but you sense he manages to withhold a part of himself from the Commandant.
More and more though the Commandant becomes a father figure to Abu. Yet the man betrays this role and will eventually be betrayed himself by the rebellion’s supreme leader. The wheels then come off the rolling war machine of the Commandant’s company as he no longer fights for anything other than his and his warriors’ survival.
Which eventually presents Agu with a chance for redemption.
It’s hard to talk about this movie’s performances when everyone is not so much acting as inhabiting roles with naturalistic ease. The faces of these soldiers, all young and some underage, reflect the reality they find themselves in amid a conflict’s chaos and happenstance.
Fukunaga frames their experiences not with a gritty realism but a hyper surrealism, a this-can’t-be-happening aura that turns them all into beasts.
Attah’s face will long haunt you as he bears witness of man’s — and his own forced — inhumanity to fellow man. It’s astonishing how easy it can happen when a charismatic leader unleashes one’s inner beast.
Opens: October 16, 2015 (Netflix, Bleecker Street)
Production: Red Crown, Participant Media, Levantine Films, New Balloon, Mutressa Movies, Primary Productions, Parliament of Owls
Cast: Idris Elba, Abraham Attah, Jude Akuwudike, Emmanuel ‘King Kong’ Nii Adom Quaye
Director/screenwriter/director of photography: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Based on the novel by: Uzodinma Iweala
Producers: Amy Kaufman, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Daniella Taplin Lundberg, Riva Marker, Daniel Crown, Idris Elba
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Bill Benenson, Laura Bickford, Fiona Druckenmiller, Jamal Daniel, Donna Gigliotti, Ted Sarandos, Pauline Fischer, Sarah Bowen, Elizabeth Koch, Kristina Kendall, Nnamdi Asomugha, Elika Portnoy, Todd Courtney, Mark Holder, Peter Pastorelli, Uzodinma Iweala, Tommee May
Production designer: Inbal Weinberg
Music: Dan Romer
Costume designer: Jenny Eagan
Editors: Mikkel E.G. Nielsen, Pete Beaudreau
No rating, 137 minutes