Beasts of No Nation Review: War Through the Eyes of a Child Soldier

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Beasts of No Nation is a lot of things. One of those things is being Netflix’s first distribution of a feature length film. That’s what most of the headlines about this gripping film will be about, and that’s a shame. This is a powerful piece of filmmaking that deserves to be talked about for its themes, its horror, and its rewards, not where you can find it.

Though filmed in Ghana, the West African nation breaking apart through civil war in the story is never given a name, which is a brilliant, unbiased approach that expands the topical issues of the film from one country to many. We follow Agu (a soul-crushing debut from the very talented Abraham Attah), a boy no older than 10 years old who has his father and brother murdered in front of him by government soldiers, putting him on the run in the jungle. He’s captured by a band of rebels led by the Commandant (a committed Idris Elba turning in perhaps his best work), who then turns the young boy into a soldier.

Agu’s arc is one we’ve seen in war films before (Apocalypse Now and Platoon come to mind), but never with a boy his age at the center. The very sight of him holding a machine gun in a small group of armed men and boys put a sting in my eye that periodically overflowed throughout the film. Beasts of No Nation is the story of how lives are destroyed by war in parts of the world foreign to ours. By his actions and through voiceover, we witness Agu forcibly grow up despite looking no older at the end. He tells us there’s no going back to doing “child things” at one point, something we beg the film to disprove. Even if he can go back, he will carry with him the sights of war into his teenage years and beyond.

For its complex themes and heartbreaking take on war, Beasts of No Nation is easily one of the best war films of the decade. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga has delivered a visually arresting and difficult film that will challenge viewers right to the end credits. Despite some lags in the second hour, this is a fine-tuned machine of a movie that will hit you right where it hurts and keep poking the wound. And somehow, for all its bleakness, there are rewards to be found. Watch it on the big screen if you can, this one deserves it. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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