First Watch: Beasts of No Nation

Agu, played by Abraham Attah, looks right into the camera during Beast of No Nation’s final moments, telling a counselor from the missionary school which has abruptly supplanted his harrowing days as an NDF child soldier that he “just want[s] to be happy in this life.” The weight of the film’s previous 130 minutes is visibly bearing down upon him, the vigor, joy, and mischievousness that can be found in his eyes at the film’s onset gone, replaced by motionless, murky pools. Most importantly his innocence. He tells the counselor of the family that loves him, of his good heart, his good nature, more trying to convince himself than whomever is sitting in the chair opposite, trying to convince the viewer whom has seen this world through Agu’s eyes, been forced to drown inside of those growing pools right alongside him.

Agu, played by Abraham Attah, looks right into the camera during Beast of No Nation's final moments, telling a counselor from the missionary school which has abruptly supplanted his harrowing days as an NDF child soldier that he "just want[s] to be happy in this life." The weight of the film's previous 130 minutes is visibly bearing down upon him, the vigor, joy, and mischievousness that can be found in his eyes at the film's onset gone, replaced by motionless, murky pools. Most importantly his innocence. He tells the counselor of the family that loves him, of his good heart, his good nature, more trying to convince himself than whomever is sitting in the chair opposite, trying to convince the viewer that has seen this world through Agu's eyes, been forced to drown inside of those growing pools right alongside him.

It's this progression housed in Agu's eyes that makes his plea all the more heartbreaking. We have seen him at his best: eating dinner at ease and playfully joking with his family, a door-to-door "imagination television" pitchman goofing off with his friends, and we have seen him at his worst: hacking an innocent academic beyond recognition with a machete in painfully drawn-out slow motion, something like enjoyment briefly floating to the surface of those otherwise still pools. It's the existence of both of those boys in the version of Agu that asks for his redemption that makes Beasts of No Nation such a complicated, gut-wrenching story. Were both of those boys always present? Floating in and out of existence as the circumstances call for, the ruthless killer lurking in the shadows of the dinner table or the little troublemaker shuddering on the side of the battle-torn road. While we can't know the answer to that question, it's an unequivocal yes that both of those boys now live inside of Agu, and he'll have to forever reckon with that, something Attah makes beautifully and tragically apparent in the film's final, high-stakes scene.

Leaning so heavily on Attah, a complete unknown, first-time actor, to bring scenes of both the early levity and ultimate gravity alive is only one of director Cary Fukunaga's brilliant decisions on display here. Attah, in being a fresh face on screen (whether silver or small, given the film's Netflix Original distinction), is able to utterly embody Agu and the viewer never questions him. It's as if Attah is experiencing the reality around the character in real time, reacting perfectly to every horror around him. By the time he sits across from the counselor, it could be either Agu or Attah himself that feels the weight that is visibly bearing down upon his shoulders. Fukunaga mercilessly trains his camera on Attah for the monologue's duration, a culmination of all of the moments he refused to turn his lens away from for the film's brutal span. Even those when that brutality is implied, such as the machete scene or later on when the Commandant (Idris Elba) sexually assaults Agu, Fukunaga's camera shows what is necessary to display the toll those moments take on his protagonist. Each shot is handled with intention and care, a plain indication of the level of Fukunaga's commitment to his film.

Perhaps it is this commitment — the fact that Fukunaga adapted the screenplay himself from the Uzodinma Iweala novel of the same name, directed, and shot the whole thing himself — that draws such beautiful performances out of all those around him. Attah is a stunning emergence, all of the support around him — from his silent partner-in-crime Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) to his brother (Francis Weddey) pouring nearly tangible love and affection for Agu — further carry forth Fukunaga's naturalist approach to his tough subject matter, but Elba himself is just as surprising. This shouldn't come as a surprise, but in a way it does: Beasts of No Nation is so reliant on realism and grit — especially when it comes to its performances — that for Elba to eschew any prior iconography as The Wire's Stringer and the titular Luther and his generally overpowering Idris Elbaness and deliver a rich and believable performance as the Commandant is an accomplishment in his own right. He was never at risk of standing out in the crowd of unknowns and embodies the monstrous character in a way that, though he finds none of the redemption that Agu does, makes him a sympathetic character as well. The story is a tragedy on all fronts, not just Agu's: each and every character that finds his or her way on the screen is a victim, and Fukunaga treats everyone with respect for that fact.

Beasts of No Nation will not be a blockbuster. In fact, it hardly will find footing on any blocks to bust. However, its cultural impact should far outweigh the level of opportunity it receives to make said impact. Fukunaga and all involved seem keenly aware of the responsibility that a film has which will choose war as its focal point, particularly a war as widespread and terrifying as the one here, which sees an impressionable child have to worry that he has become nothing more than a beast. That responsibility is reigned perhaps as well as any war movie has ever done, reconciling the philosophical weight and visual beauty of a film like Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line with the importance of not looking away, not sugarcoating. Even the film's score, devastatingly composed by Dan Romer (Beasts of the Southern Wild), seems to struggle with his reconciliation; in one of the film's pivotal scenes where the Commandant's roughshod army is set to take a key bridge, the score fights for an identity that will both celebrate those young souls perishing in the dirt but revile at their deeds, tonal argumentation overlaying the graphic imagery put forth by Fukunaga. Ultimately, this is the film's mission: to celebrate Agu for the boy he was, the boy he could again become, but never turn its eye from the boy he can be.