Every once in a while there comes a movie that, while difficult to watch, is so brilliantly crafted by expert hands that it is impossible to turn away from. “Beasts of No Nation” is a perfect example of one of those films. Just like in a film such as “Blue Valentine,” it is impossible to say that you are being entertained by the painful and occasionally horrific events that are unfolding before you, but because the story is told in such a complete manner, with loads of emotional and thematic depth, it forces you to keep watching because it has fully engrossed you in the world it has created. This fictional story of a West African child to a murdered family that is eventually forced into becoming a child soldier under the powerful “guidance” of a man that refers to himself as the “Commandant” is far from easy viewing. It is harsh. It is brutal. It is uncompromising. At the core, however, it is brilliant.
While not for the faint of heart, this visually stunning and incredibly acted feat instantly stands out as one of the finest films of the year. It is actually the best film I have seen in 2015 to this date. The violence is raw and filled with emotion, and the characters display an unconditional amount of emotional complexity. One of the biggest pitfalls facing war films is they spend too much time focusing on the mindless action sequences rather than the characters. This film balances action and character development perfectly, with the action and violence also serving a very important purpose. It isn’t just random killing in this film; the violence sends a message and enhances the narrative in a way that all war movies should. Agu, our main character, is brilliantly played by newcomer Abraham Attah, with the film featuring the perfect balance of spoken narrative to explain his emotions and close ups of facial expressions to get a deeper understanding of what is going on in this little boy’s head.
As good as Attah is, Idris Elba carries his scenes with such a commanding force that I have yet to see this year. It may be early on, but I can say with confidence that I will be very surprised if we do not see his name on the shortlist for the Best Supporting Actor Award. His character is so much more than a power hungry, controlling warlord. He shows scenes of strength and certainty, but at times is vulnerable, cautious and even lost in the journey he finds himself on, and Elba displays all the emotions brilliantly.
While Elba is a sight to behold in this film, he isn’t the best part about what makes this film great. What makes this film stand out as perfect to me is its ability to show Agu’s decent into despair and chaos from the calm serenity depicted the beginning of the film. The journey is progressed with a deliberate pace that parallels that of “The Pianist.” While these children feel like “beasts” and do perform unspeakable actions at the word of their commander, they are still humanized and the director makes sure to display that at their core, these are still children, just children lost in a world where they find themselves fighting for something that they truly don’t comprehend.
This film will be significant since it’s the first feature length movie to be produced by Netflix, but it should be remembered for so much more than that. This film is a full in-depth analysis of the costs of war that helps provide greater understanding to a situation that seems all to foreign to us, with a brilliant and empathetic character study at the center of it all. It is an all around work of art that captures every essence of what makes cinema so great. Despite it’s harsh realities and gut-wrenching scenes of horror, it is a film that I cannot wait to see again because I haven’t felt so engrossed by a film like that in quite some time. If you can stomach the violence, it is a must see.
Beasts of No Nation (2015): 4/4 stars