Beasts of No Nation opens in theaters and Netflix simultaneously this week, and while it’s tempting to want to avoid leaving the house — the traffic, the sticky feet, the possibility of ugly people breathing on you — this is the kind of film that’s worth the trouble of seeing on the big screen (or at least the trouble of finding a nice television). It’s immersive exotica, dropping you into a bewildering, utterly foreign war zone with little of the familiar for a life preserver. It takes a good 10 minutes just to acclimate to the dialect, which is initially impenetrable. Clearly the goal is to make viewers feel as lost as one of Africa’s lost boys. And it works, creating an experience so engrossing that it’s hard to even judge as a work of fiction, because it rarely feels like one.
Cary Fukunaga (True Detective‘s first season, Sin Nombre) uses a cast of mostly non-professional actors, including Ghanian Abraham Attah as Agu, our eyes and ears into the world of the child soldier, where almost none of the rules of the outside world apply. Agu lives in a village in an unnamed West African country with his mother, father, older brother, and younger sister, who’ve already had their former lives derailed by war. They’re making the best of it, but they’re about to be overrun by any number of the intimidating acronyms battling each other outside the city — the PLF, the NRF, ECOMOD, the junta, rebels, government forces. Knowing who these are or even what the letters stand for is as irrelevant for us as it would’ve been for one of Agu’s villagers. There is no “good” or “bad,” only trying to determine which way to run maximizes your chance for survival.
The most brilliant choice Beasts of No Nation makes is to use Idris Elba to represent the same safety and security for us, metatextually, as he does for Agu in the story. We’re dropped into this foreign environment, thrashing around for something familiar, and just when we’re about to drown, the guy from The Wire shows up as a comforting father figure (in this case the “Commandant,” a leader in the NDF, the Native Defense Force). If your family members had just been murdered and you were running through the jungle like Agu, you’d probably have a healthy respect for the first person who gave you food and didn’t try to kill you too. After all, it’s not as if you have a choice.
Agu’s sense of wanting to do right by his new family (his only real option for protection) is so palpable that you almost find yourself cheering for him to hack open a pleading prisoner with a machete. If New Dad hands you a rusty blade and tells you to split a skull, wouldn’t you? You don’t want to disappoint him. Elba’s charisma is so strong that Fukunaga uses it to pull viewers away from their own humanity. As Amsterdam says in Gangs of New York, “It’s a funny thing being taken under the wing of a dragon. It’s warmer than you think.”
Compare Idris Elba to Daniel Day-Lewis’ work as Bill the Butcher? Yep. He’s that good.
The genius of the story, and of Elba’s performance, is that while you know there’s something deeply wrong with this war, and with the Commandant — and possibly with the world — it’s the Commandant himself who most often offers comfort from his own abuse. It’s rare to get such a vivid understanding into the relationship between abuser and abused.
Likewise, no matter how out there Beasts gets, whether Agu’s being asked to chop people up, snort “brown-brown” (a peculiarly African mix of cocaine and gunpowder) or participate in primitive initiation rituals, it doesn’t feel sensational. That’s partly because nothing in the story is embellished much, based on the real accounts of child soldiers I’ve read, but even more because it places us so firmly in Agu’s shoes that we can understand wanting to participate. The film understands not just the relationship between abuser and abused, but the male group dynamic, the sense of feeling weak, the longing to be part of something bigger than yourself, and the bonding that happens in the face of outside trauma. Even as Agu loses part of his humanity, you can still feel a vicarious pride in him becoming, as Full Metal Jacket so eloquently put it, “born again hard.”
Beasts was a notoriously difficult shoot, and that’s evident in the final product. There are voiceovers from Agu that aren’t quite intelligible (or perhaps even necessary), shots here and there that feel like Band-Aids over what the filmmakers really wanted to shoot, and a general sense of it not all fitting together in the slick, seamless way we’ve come to expect from a big-time production. The spit and duct tape doesn’t hurt the final product though, and in fact might help it. It adds to the sense of non-professional realism, the feeling you’re watching something made by the people who actually lived it (even though you’re not). One lesson Hollywood’s starting to learn: leaving the seams showing a little bit can be a good thing. It’s nice to have a reminder of how hard these folks are trying, and also that a film could probably never convey the feeling of living in the world it depicts.