Reaching out to discerning adult viewers across two media, Netflix is releasing its ambitious “Beasts of No Nation” for online streaming and theatrical showing simultaneously. With this terrific, intense drama about child soldiers in Africa, writer-director Cary Fukunaga confirms his status as a star in cinema (with compelling work in “Sin Nombre” and “Jane Eyre”) and on the home screen (helming the first season of HBO’s “True Detective”). If there is a viewpoint or genre outside his grasp, we have not met it in this striking, muscular thriller.
The film’s ferocious story, adapted from the novel by Uzodinma Iweala, focuses on young Agu (Abraham Attah), a playful boy of about 7. He lives in an unnamed sector of the continent, near undefined fighting. The film keeps that combat at a distance for more than a quarter-hour, giving us a view of Agu’s mischievous nature, equally upsetting and delighting his churchgoing family and naughty friends. The only threat comes from an old woman who gives Agu and his immature pals a devil’s curse for being disrespectful, a threat that doubles as a warning for the film’s viewers.
By the time we have come to care for Agu, the safety of life in the protected zone begins to crumble. The battle between government troops and rebels moves in; Agu loses his loving relations, and a magnetic guerrilla commander (Idris Elba) inducts him into his barbaric faction. What goal is he fighting for? It hardly matters.
The leader becomes Agu’s satanic mentor, framed in low-angle shots like a child’s gaze up at a grown man. As the warm sunshine of the opening scenes fades to dark night, Agu becomes part of a ragtag children’s militia, trained to carry lethal weapons and carry out deadly orders.
As he is pushed ever deeper into sadistic violence, the film’s panoramic cinematography evolves impressively. In one breathtaking sequence we see Agu’s gung-ho young triggermen firing at runaway civilians. The child soldiers and their victims run full clip (and with stunning battle choreography) through a forest whose foliage has fronds red as blood.
By the time the film reaches the deep, dark abyss, we have seen appalling bloodshed of humans battered with machetes and automatic rifles. Although it’s hard not to flinch every time a bullet fires, these are not shock tactics, but frightening parts of a compassionate, well-crafted film.
The cast is impressive top to bottom, Elba sensational as ever in the role of the paternalistic rebel officer who talks his troops into risking self-sacrifice. He’s a thrilling screen presence, even in a dialogue-free scene showing his rising impatience as officeholders at the capitol keep him waiting for a meeting.
Every bit as impeccable is Attah (named best young actor at the Venice Film Festival), who holds each emotionally deep, demanding scene with the power of a new star.
There could hardly be a subject as difficult as this, but it is handled with savage, startling creativity. Of all the deaths we witness, none is more ferocious than the drumbeat extermination of innocence.
‘Beasts of No Nation’
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Abraham Attah, Emmanuel Affadzi, Ricky Adelayitor, Idris Elba.
Writer-director: Cary Fukunaga (based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala.
Running time: 137 minutes. In English and subtitled Twi.
Rating: Unrated (Extensive violence).