"God... are you watching what we are doing?"
This question is normally an existential one, asked by thinkers who have the luxury to sit and write about the mysteries of the universe that they choose to entertain. But for Agu, the main character of Beasts of No Nation, it's painfully literal. For Agu is a soldier: recruited by a monstrous rebel leader in a merciless war, trained to watch and perform unspeakable acts, subject to horrors that no one should ever experience- but he's also still an 11 year old child. At least, he's physically a child. Experientially, the child soldiers of this film participate in and witness too much for one lifetime. They're savages. But they're still human, crying out in hopes that God Himself will turn a blind eye.
Capturing this tragic contrast so skillfully is what makes Beasts of No Nation such an outstanding film. What elevates it to the status of necessary art, though, is what it has to say about this contrast and the reasons for it. This combination gives us a rare movie indeed: it's heartrending, gruesome, but human; a poignant revelation in using narrative to explore the reality of dehumanizing children in war. It left me broken and speechless- this review will probably take me a long time to write.
Before I speak at length to what the movie accomplishes through its direction, screenplay, and theme, I must commend the two primary actors. Abraham Attah as Agu is truly impressive. Just before starring in Beasts of No Nation, Attah was a young street vendor with "zero film experience and little education" that director Cary Fukunaga found on site in the streets of Ghana. And yet his performance is miles better than many of the highly trained, adult actors populating this year's films. His gravitas as an actor matches the movie's tone perfectly- quite the large feat. Idris Elba, who we usually expect to be good, is great as well. He brings tyrannical force and venerability to his role as the Commandant, giving us a character that's worth both disgust and sympathy- even if it's mostly the former, as he plays off of the fears that rallied so many against Joseph Kony years ago.
Thematic contrast is the flesh and bones of Beasts of No Nation. The term "child soldier" is in and of itself an unfortunate contrast between two human states that should not coexist, so the movie intelligently chooses to thrive deeply within an oxymoronic reality. It takes place in a distinctly African country, but one that is unnamed and physically fantastical; the war at the narrative's center never happened but is reminiscent of ones that have; Fukunaga's direction and cinematography (yeah, he was behind both) oscillate seamlessly between gorgeously dreamlike and starkly raw; his screenplay's dialogue (he did also write the movie. Fukunaga is shaping up to be a master class filmmaker) consists of a mix of English and Twi that dips in and out of a foreign sensibility; Agu's life is convincingly painted whether genuine, familial warmness or appalling inhumanity is depicted.
This thematic contrast weaved throughout every facet of Beasts of No Nation achieves an effect that is nothing short of incredible. The artful approach to the movie's narrative makes us feel comfortable in the knowledge that we are watching a work of fiction- the visualization of an artist's story. The fantastical and the fictional assure us that we are an audience disconnected from any responsibility to this non-existent nation.
Then Fukunaga brings that illusion crashing down on us. Violent deeds so reprehensible and realistic- carried out by once innocent children- are presented to us with a forcefully fixed gaze, and we're left with tears in our eyes and a weight in our hearts.
"This is happening in your world, not just this one," the film growls through gritted teeth. "And you're watching it happen safely from home."
Beasts of No Nation relentlessly conveys this from start to finish. We see the opening shot through the frame of a television set, reminding us to pay attention because we're watching a movie. Then, with our attention firmly held, Agu's childhood and humanity are stripped away layer by layer while he desperately tries to hold onto both. A savage war envelops our emotional capacity, spilling out from the metaphorical television set and into our minds as we're reminded that children actually go through this. Suspension of disbelief becomes a horrified reluctance to believe.
It's undeniably a hard watch, and not for those with weak stomachs. But the heartbreak it brings is necessary for our world society, as are the slightest glimmers of hope that Fukunaga mercifully provides. Beasts of No Nation is a masterful representation of a true tragedy that humankind can work towards diminishing.
Agu may or may not believe that God is watching what the child soldiers are doing, but we are watching. And we are irreversibly moved.