Why are movies made? What motivates a director, a writer or a production company to invest time and money for a film? If recent projects in Hollywood provide any proof of this, it would seem that the answer is to make money. Every so often a cord seems to strike with audiences, and when the film industry finds that cord, they do whatever they can to make a profit off it by replicating what makes that cord resonate, leaving anything divergent of this trend lying in the shadows as a result. I enjoy big blockbuster productions immensely, but it was in these shadows that I found myself watching Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” which sounded a much deeper, emotional cord than any mainstream film of recent memory.
“Beasts of No Nation” is a limited-release film distributed by Netflix. It centers around a young West African boy, Agu, as he is separated from his family and forced to become a child soldier in the midst of a civil war. The film begins on a lighter note, depicting Agu playing in his village with friends and family, but gradually shifts to a tone of escalating darkness when the village is invaded by military rebels fighting in the war, resulting in the death of Agu’s father and brother. Agu is soon assimilated into the ranks of the “NDF,” a military faction of the civil war, headed by the Commandant, played by Idris Elba. The film hinges on the juxtaposition of childhood innocence with the horrors of war, making for an emotionally taxing film from start to finish.
It is absolutely heartbreaking to watch Agu and the rest of the child soldiers spiral into the darkness of combat, and that is largely credited to Abraham Attah’s raw performance. There’s a scene where Agu’s closest friend in the battalion is shot, forcing Agu to carry him onward through the battleground. The boy dies while still on Agu’s back, and all the young soldiers can do to commemorate his death is quickly cover him with leaves from the foliage so they can continue to fight. This moment, like the rest of the film, is disconcerting and heavy with emotional realism.
Idris Elba is also captivating in his role as the Commandant. What startled me about his character was his allure. As a warlord with reign over these boys, the Commandant is not overtly ruthless; in fact, his allure at the onset of his appearance is shocking, and in many ways, he embodies a paternal role for Agu very soon after he loses his father. It was both fascinating and unsettling to watch Elba peel back the layers of this man, proving that the Commandant is far more complex than my stereotype of what a warlord is.
In one word, “Beasts of No Nation” is striking. It is arguably one of the most difficult movies I have ever watched, not because it was bad—on the contrary, it was beautifully executed—but because it deals with themes and ideas that we don’t get to see in mainstream films, and perhaps there is a reason for that. The movie touches on issues of war, violence, rape, sex and drugs, all of which are topics that are not easy to discuss. However, if its critical acclaim and Idris Elba’s recent SAG award for Best Supporting Actor means anything, perhaps these are the ideas that really matter in filmmaking. While I can’t say “Beasts of No Nation” is a film that I would want to watch again, watching it was a necessary experience because it grabbed me, rattled me and forced me to think about the issues and themes that don’t get enough recognition in the media. There is certainly merit in making films that will resonate with the audience’s wallets, but if the real reason to make films is to get audiences to think about difficult questions and to feel difficult emotions, then “Beasts of No Nation” encapsulates every aspect of that.