To the small handful of brilliant movies about the madness of war — among them “Apocalypse Now” and the Soviet “Come and See” — we must now add Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” a ghastly but hugely moving story about child soldiers in an African civil war.
In this sobering feature — a Netflix original that is also being booked into theaters — we never do learn the nationality of Agu (Abraham Attah), our young protagonist. Only that he lives with his family in a demilitarized zone where civilians are safe from the violence that swirls around them.
But their sanctuary doesn’t last long. Soldiers — apparently they represent the central government — show up to do a bit of cleansing. Agu’s mother and younger siblings have already fled to the big city, but now he watches as his unarmed father and older brother are gunned down.
The boy races into the bush, living like an animal. Then’s he’s captured by a band of rebels led by Commandant (a hypnotic Idris Elba) and slowly indoctrinated into their martial ranks.
Commandant is the only adult in sight. His next-in-command is a teenager and most of the troops under him are mere children playing soldier. It’s like “Lord of the Flies” with machine guns.
But Commandant is a charismatic leader for whom his “men” would do anything. So when newbie Agu is ordered to execute a captive with a machete, he obeys. Reluctantly at first, and then in a frenzy as the lust to kill takes over.
Filmed in Ghana, “Beasts…” doesn’t concern itself with the politics over which all this blood is being spilt. It may have something to do with tribal rivalries. Perhaps religion is involved (Commandant and his boys have a pious side, when they’re not butchering their fellow men.)
Thus the film becomes a universal story of innocence corrupted.
There are two great performances here. The most obvious is Elba’s as Commandant, a man so obviously well versed in human psychology (he seems like an educated man trying to act the part of a commoner) that we’re drawn to him despite his murderous practices.
He knows when to threaten, when to cajole, when to reward, when to make a “special” friend of a boy so that the kid feels honored and elevated. It’s only when he’s dealing with other adults — like his boss, the “Supreme Commander “of the rebel troops — that we realize he probably had little going for him in a peaceful world. Only in war can he flourish.
The other tremendous characterization is provided by Attah, only 13 when he made the film. The kid is devastating without ever letting you see him acting. He manages to internalize Agu’s fears and guilt without big gestures. This is a dense, contained performance of the sort you find in Robert Bresson’s films.
Hard to believe this is young Attah’s first film role (though it was strong enough that he received the Marcello Mastroianni Award for acting at this year’s Venice International Film Festival).
Despite its grim subject matter the film has a wondrous visual sense, and Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre,” “Jane Eyre” and the first season of HBO’s “True Detective”) expertly stages the battle scenes in such a way that we approach them with dread rather than as an exercise in Hollywood pulse pounding.
For some time now I’ve argued that the best films out there today are being produced for the premium cable channels. One cannot imagine that “Beasts of No Nation” would ever have been made if it relied on box office receipts for its survival.
Thank you, Netflix.