‘Beasts of No Nation’ Is a Dark and Beautiful Fairy Tale
The new film stares at the horrors of war with the eyes of a child
Commandant puts the blade in the boy’s hand and tell him he must learn how to kill. “So when you are chopping wood you lift up high, high,” Commandant explains. “Then, when you are ready, you come down so well into the flesh.”
The captured man squirms in the dirt. His hands are bound behind him. “You have chopped a melon before?” Commandant asks and the boy nods. “Well, this is not a melon.”
He slaps the top of the squirming man’s head. “This is hard. So you must split him good.”
Agu — the boy who can’t be more than 12 years old — works up his courage and brings the machete down into the man’s head. Blood arcs into the sky but he does not die. Agu’s friend and fellow soldier Strike joins him and the two rain blows on the dying man.
Their thin child arms pump up and down while they scream. Bright red — almost Technicolor — blood shoots through the air while the young boys work. Commandant has blooded another soldier; made a man of a child.
This is Beasts of No Nation.
Beasts of No Nation is a film written and directed by Cary Fukunaga, who also directed every episode of True Detective’s excellent first season. It’s based on a 2005 book of the same title and tells the story of Agu — a young boy in an unnamed African country who loses most of his family and becomes a soldier.
Agu is young when the movie starts and as war rages around him. The rebel PLF fights the National Reformation Council junta and the Native Defense Force fights them both. Agu and his family live in a buffer zone protected by ECOMOD peacekeepers. Life is hard but good.
But as the NRC presses in, ECOMOD pulls out and soldiers murder his family. Agu wanders into the bush … lost, confused and angry. There, he meets the charismatic Commandant — played with haunted anger by Idris Elba — who gives the boy a choice. Agu can join the NDF, become a soldier and avenge his family or he can die in the wild.
Agu joins the group and throws himself into the war.
I dreaded watching Beasts of No Nation. It’s a prestige picture, a film Netflix scooped up and distributed because it wants to win an Oscar. I knew that for the next six months people would ask me if I had seen it and want my opinion of it.
Every year, Hollywood releases a few Oscar bait films centered on a social issue or a lionized historical figure and I always dread it. These are movies you’re supposed to see, as if watching a film was like taking medicine or completing a homework assignment. No matter how good the film might be, I’m often blinded by this contrarian grumpiness.
Not so with Beasts of No Nation. It is definitely an Oscar bait film centered around an unpleasant truth Westerners don’t often face — child soldiers — but it also happens to be really damn good.
Fukunaga is an incredible director. His use of color is breathtaking. So many recent films have gray and brown color palettes with a blue and orange overlay. Fukunaga doesn’t do that and Beasts is full of beautiful, rich colors that almost hurt the eyes. The deep green of the bush vibrates around the boys. Blood is so red it’s surreal. Even the dirt is a deep orange-tinted brown.
Elba’s performance also elevates the work. Commandant is ruthless in the pursuit of power, and he acts as a hybrid of Liberian war criminal Charles Taylor and the sadistic rebel leader Joseph Kony. Elba’s personality is magnetic and I found myself both attracted to and repulsed by Commandant.
I can’t talk about Beasts of No Nation without also mentioning War Witch. The 2012 film follows Komona, a 12-year old girl in Africa forced to kill her parents and become a child soldier. The two films tell the same story and both make extensive use of dream imagery.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say Beasts ripped of War Witch. But Beasts never feels derivative. These are companion films. War Witch tells the story from a woman’s perspective and Beasts tells that same story with a male eye. They’re both excellent and they compliment each other.
Both feel like children’s books or fables and I think that’s because Westerners directed them. The reality of child soldiers is something we have difficulty understanding in the West so it makes sense to me that to process it, filmmakers would use the dreamy logic of a fairy tale.
Both use vibrant, primary colors, both contain ghosts and magic — though War Witch far more frequently — and both are ambiguous about time and place.
The NRC, ECOMOD and NDF of Beasts are all analogues for real-world organizations — ECOMOD is a stand-in for ECOMOG — but the comparison is never exact. It’s never one to one.
The NDF boys dress in brightly colored motley that reminded me of Peter Pan. Commandant’s battalion is a troupe of Lost Boys led by Captain Hook. Both Beasts and War Witch are stories about childhood horror.
They do not shy away from that horror but they also embrace children and their perspectives. This sense of child-like wonder makes the nastiness of the films bearable.