“A boy is a dangerous thing,” says the Commandant, who leads an army of young soldiers fighting a civil war in an unspecified West African country. He’s talking about Agu, a newly captured prisoner and also, potentially, a fresh recruit, who has fled into the forest hoping to escape the violence that has consumed his hometown.
Agu, who describes himself as “a good boy from a good family,” seems perfectly harmless — a skinny preadolescent whose capacity for malice doesn’t extend beyond pranks directed at his vain, girl-crazy older brother. But the most heartbreaking thing about “Beasts of No Nation” is that both Agu and the Commandant are right. The line between innocence and evil is thinner than the blade of a machete.
Written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, “Beasts of No Nation” is based on Uzodinma Iweala’s harrowing, linguistically dazzling novel of a child soldier’s life. Mr. Iweala’s distinctive prose style is sometimes echoed in Agu’s voice-over narration, but the boy’s point of view is more immediately conveyed in the watchful eyes and sensitive features of Abraham Attah, the nimble young actor who plays him. Agu is numbed by horror and hardened by the brutality he has witnessed and perpetrated. The Commandant (Idris Elba) trains him and his comrades to be “warriors,” which is to say war criminals. While the film, like the book, does not turn away from the atrocities they commit, it also doesn’t allow you to forget that they’re children.
Needless to say, this is not easy viewing, though Mr. Fukunaga (who also directed a recent “Jane Eyre” and the first season of HBO’s “True Detective”) is careful to imply more horror than he shows. He has a knack for balancing visual impact with dramatic understatement. When I returned for a second viewing of “Beasts of No Nation,” six weeks and several dozen movies after the first one, I was surprised by both how many scenes I remembered and also how many nuances I had missed. Seeing it for the first time on a big screen, I was caught up in the chaos of combat and the feverish pace of the story. But the second time, in the quiet of my house, I was struck by the hallucinatory, fairy-tale quality of some of the images and also by the sense that I was watching a character study rather than a topical drama.
These discrepancies are worth noting because “Beasts of No Nation” is the first fictional feature produced and distributed by Netflix, which makes it something of a milestone in the continued collapse of the already rickety distinction between movies made to be shown in theaters and those destined for online streaming. You can, if you’re in the right place at the right time, choose your platform, but it’s not quite the same experience.
The war movie is potent, but it also can feel a little familiar, with ambushes, late-night firefights and urban skirmishes drawn from a tried-and-true genre playbook. The politics of Agu’s homeland (which suggests Sierra Leone or Liberia) are similarly generic. An alphabet soup of militias, with names invoking lofty abstractions like Liberation and Reconciliation, contend for power, split into factions and victimize civilians.
What we see is awful, but the vagueness of the setting blunts the film’s political and moral impact. (It’s also strange that the war-ravaged nation remains unnamed. Imagine a fiercely realistic film about genocidal violence in the 1940s set in a place identified only as “Europe.”) Mr. Fukunaga compensates by offering a complex inquiry into the psychology of power and the emotional logic of total war. When the Commandant finds him, Agu has lost his friends, his family, his home and any feeling of security he might have had. Militia life offers a ready-made set of substitutes. He befriends another very young fighter, called Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), who never speaks. Teenage soldiers like 2nd I-C (Kurt Egyiawan) become his surrogate older brothers.
The Commandant is a demonic father figure, a seducer and a predator who rules his young charges less through fear than through the motivational grandiosity of a football coach. That Mr. Elba can be scary and charismatic at the same time will not be news to anyone who saw him in “The Wire,” but the Commandant lacks the ambition and the entrepreneurial savvy of Stringer Bell. He is, to Agu and the others, a larger-than-life figure, half monster and half wizard. Gradually though, we see his weakness, his desperation and his status as a pawn in a much larger military and geopolitical game. He shrinks before our eyes, and in retrospect our amazement at Mr. Elba’s accomplishment only grows.
The movie itself is an effective nightmare, and a solid piece of filmmaking, strong enough to make you wish that it could have borne the full weight of the tragedy it set out to depict.
“Beasts of No Nation” is not rated.