There's a devastatingly efficient repetition in director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film, Beasts of No Nation, which he adapted from Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala’s novel, that encapsulates the descent into horror of its protagonist.
A young boy, Agu, and his friends cut down a tree and lay it across a road in an unspecified West African country. When a motorist stops, they cheekily try to extort money from him to move it. He’s not in the least impressed. Soon after, Agu’s homeland is rent by war between rival factions, his father has been killed in front of him, and he’s sought the protection of guerrillas in the forest. When they set up a roadblock on a bridge, Agu is forced to kill a man with a machete, as the victim – who he’s informed is responsible by association for his father’s death – pleads for mercy.
Beasts of No Nation, the first feature-length film by Netflix, is a savage, beautiful (sometimes savagely beautiful) story of Agu’s existence as a child soldier, which he is driven to by the need to survive, but to which he soon becomes resigned and numb. This is a world too terrible to imagine, where the exuberance of childhood is exploited by men who are too corrupt, or too desperate, to care about the damage they’re wreaking: a position potently portrayed by Idris Elba as Agu’s charismatic and abusive commandant.
The star, though, is 15-year-old Abraham Attah as Agu, who delivers snippets of Iweala’s powerful prose, stuck in a kind of Miltonian hell of the present continuous tense (“I am thinking the only way not to be fighting any more is to be dying”), in a performance and voiceover as heart-rending as it is understated.
As he did in the first series of True Detective, Fukunaga finds a strange, desaturated beauty in the most dreadful of landscapes and events – here, in a spectral rocket attack – though the film’s central violence sequence, seen through Agu’s drug-addled eyes, owes a significant (and hopefully acknowledged somewhere) debt to the fuchsia-stained grasslands of Richard Mosse’s photos. The film is dark both figuratively and literally: if you’re watching at home – there’s talk of releasing it in cinemas simultaneously – keep the curtains closed.
As a beacon of Netflix’s intent to become a destination for high-quality, important and challenging feature movies, however, Beasts of No Nation shines brightly.
Available on Netflix from 16 October