Set during a civil war, Beasts of No Nation follows Agu, an ordinary young boy, as he tries to survive after being forced to flee from his village. Found and trained by a rebel militia called the NFD, Agu begins working as a child soldier under the control of the Commandant, who soon takes Agu under his wing.
Beasts of No Nation is not a pleasant film to watch. It's uncompromising, brutal, frequently disturbing, and all too real in its portrayal of war and the war crimes that are committed by soldiers on both sides of a conflict like this, each believing that they are justified in the horrors they commit thanks to the 'worthiness' of their cause. But it also does a fantastic job of making sure that you understand that Agu, our main character throughout Beasts of No Nation, is just a kid, as are the many child soldiers that still exist in the world today.
Before the war reaches his village, we watch him play with his friends, wind up his older brother and help out around the house as any kid would do - in another time or another place, Agu's life would almost certainly be as unremarkable and ordinary as anyone else's. It matters that we see Agu like this before the film really begins - understanding who he was and how vulnerable he ends up being helps us empathise with a character who is manipulated into doing terrible things.
Abraham Attah's performance as Agu is simply incredible, radiating youthful innocence before the village is attacked and easily conveying the depth of pain and internal conflict that Agu feels after joining the NFD. Seeing this character be broken by the situation he finds himself in is legitimately draining, but Beasts of No Nation never lets you forget that Agu is simply a child in an awful situation, just as much a victim of the NFD as the people who the NFD slaughter, and a lot of that is down to the layered and complex performance that Attah gives. Supporting Attah in Beasts of No Nation is Idris Elba as the charismatic but ruthless Commandant, the kind of role that reminds you what a great actor can do in the right film. He's naturally captivating to watch, but he also helps highlight just how good Attah is - it speaks volumes about Attah's talent when he manages to make his presence felt even while sharing the screen with Elba.
The story moves along pretty much as you would expect, watching Agu become more detached from his actions as he fights a war he shouldn't be involved in, but the intensity it brings with it is harrowing. I'm not joking when I said that it isn't a pleasant film to watch earlier - Agu and the NFD do awful things over the course of the film, often shown in graphic detail, and it can be hard to watch at times. Fortunately, director Cary Fukunaga (who also wrote the screenplay and acted as the films cinematographer) paces things out just enough to stop the horrors of war from becoming a slog - just as you think you can't watch any more, Beasts of No Nation will cut away to scene dealing with how Agu feels about his new life, or one of him interacting with other soldiers.
It's also worth talking about just how good looking Beasts of No Nation is. Fukunaga's cinematography is excellent and his use of colour is astounding, whether it be the bright greens of the jungle for much of the films running time or the deep orange of the trenches where the NFD end up. Given the film's subject matter, I imagine a lesser film maker would have been tempted to subdue the natural colours of Agu's environment, but Fukunaga's decision to contrast the films colour with its tone is one that really works, and helps make certain shots of Beasts of No Nation as memorable as they are.
Beasts of No Nation isn't just a great film, it's an important one. The location of Beasts of No Nation is never specified, and that's on purpose - the situation we see certainly
isn't unique to that area of the world or even the time it is set in, and I imagine that it would have been as relevant 30 years ago as it is
now. Beasts of No Nation manages to take an unbelievable, horrifying situation and show us that in similar circumstances, we might not be so different - and that ability to empathise with people half a world away matters.