Crippling despair and the most fragile tendrils of hope battle for the human psyche in “Beasts of No Nation,” writer- director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s grim, beautiful and achingly sad portrait of man’s inhumanity to man.
In an unnamed West African village, 12-year-old Agu (Abraham Attah) and his friends fill their days with comforting rituals and aimless mischief, only dimly aware of the civil war that is tearing their country apart elsewhere. “I am a good boy, from a good family,” Agu says solemnly in his narration, having already noted that, because of the war, “we are having no school.”
Bored, Agu and his friends find a television set devoid of a screen, acting out soap operas and martial arts adventures in the hopes of selling the console as an “Imagination TV.” Soon thereafter, their village is invaded by one of the warring factions, and Agu — separated from his mother and baby sister — witnesses the murder of his father and brother, a scenario that he couldn’t have conjured in his most lurid playacting fantasies.
Adrift in the surrounding countryside, Agu is discovered by a ragtag battalion of young fighters, led by a charismatic warlord called the Commandant (Idris Elba), who immediately recognizes potential in Agu to be a soldier and, perhaps, one of his favorites. What ensues is a graphic, disturbing portrayal of unmitigated evil, as the Commandant preys on the masculine insecurities and longing for affiliation of his orphaned “troops,” and as Agu is groomed into becoming a killer as hard and as coldhearted as his surrogate father.
Best known for directing the first season of HBO’s “True Detective,” Fukunaga made his feature debut with the extraordinary migration drama “Sin Nombre.” With “Beasts of No Nation,” which has been adapted from the novel by Uzodinma Iweala, he proves just as adept with atmosphere and creating indelible characters. Swaggering behind a pair of dark aviator sunglasses and a haze of narcotic smoke, Elba exudes equal parts menace and slithering charm as a tin-pot alpha male with Fagin-like power over his malleable charges. Attah makes an impressively stoic debut as the watchful, sympathetic Agu, conveying all of the terror, confusion and muted ambivalence of a boy for whom macho posturing has, against his will, now taken on unspeakably cruel life-and-death stakes.
Fukunaga imbues this study of manipulation and manufactured loyalty with an unsettling degree of visual richness and lush natural detail, creating a war film as haunting as “Paths of Glory” or “Apocalypse Now,” and just as surely grounded in the particular brutalities of its setting. From Joseph Kony in Uganda to the daily atrocities of such serial victimizers as ISIS, Boko Haram or Mexican drug cartels, the echoes in “Beasts of No Nation” are unmistakable, no less damning for being oblique.
There’s no doubt that using an unnamed country as the backdrop for “Beasts of No Nation” creates as many misgivings as advantages. On the one hand, the conceit perpetuates the reductive image of Africa as an overwhelmingly violent and inscrutable place, mired in tribalism and intractable hopelessness. The history and political compromises that allowed the Commandant’s rise are conveniently avoided.
On the other hand, Agu’s wrenching story gives singular, unforgettable voice to a reality too easily ignored when it’s conveyed in fleeting headlines or dispassionate news briefs. Most gratifying of all, “Beasts of No Nation” doesn’t succumb to the paralyzing fatalism it so vividly chronicles. Agu and his contemporaries may have had their childhoods stolen, the film suggests, but their futures can still be saved.
Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row and E Street cinemas; also available on Netflix. Contains obscenity and disturbing images of rape, brutality and childhood sexual abuse. 136 minutes.