Entertainment

‘Beasts of No Nation’ is brutally effective

What It’s About

A staggering work about lawlessness in West African civil warfare, “Beasts of No Nation” stuns with its unflinching brutality and engrossing performances.

Director Cary Fukunaga, who demonstrated his distinctive visual style in the brilliant first season of “True Detective,” also wrote the screenplay, adapted from Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel, and was his own director of photography.

Fukunaga infuses the film with both graceful beauty and harsh reality. The subject is difficult and the violence tough to watch, but his skills give us an immersive glimpse into something we usually look away from in the Third World.

Agu, “a good boy from a good family,” has his childhood obliterated and world turned upside-down when his village is torn apart by encroaching warfare.

On the run, he falls in with a rebel army led by the charismatic and feared Commandant (Idris Elba). Agu (Abraham Attah) becomes a dutiful soldier, surviving an intense indoctrination.

The boys are manipulated to commit horrible acts of violence, and are subjected to abuse themselves. The savagery on display is jarring, knocking us out of our comfort zone.

Performances

Newcomer Abraham Attah of Ghana delivers an extraordinary debut performance, shifting from a mischievous schoolboy to a favored child solder. He’s a natural on screen, and you feel every single one of his emotions.

The mesmerizing Idris Elba (“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”) takes command of the screen as the Fagin-like father-figure to his lost boys. He displays quicksilver mood changes — volatile and tyrannical one minute, then expresses fake concern to control his troops.

It’s a blistering performance, reminiscent of doomed cult leaders and temperamental dictators. His facial expressions while he waits for his boss, the Supreme Commander, to see him — and give him his comeuppance — need no words.

Emmanuel “King Kong” Nil Adom Quaye is memorable as Agu’s friend Strika.

What Works

The way Fukunaga uses the red soil of Africa and the bush countryside is exquisite. Dan Romer’s musical score isn’t obtrusive.

Haunting and powerful, this film makes an indelible impact.

What Doesn’t Work

The voice-over narration can sometimes be hard to understand.

The fascinating story loses its way in the final act, and gets a tad murky. But it is a work that blends ugliness with beauty.

The country is not named, in case you are trying to figure it out.

“Beasts of No Nation” is Netflix’s first original film, and will be released streaming video on Friday, the same day as its theatrical release (to qualify for awards season). It’s deserving to be considered for year-end accolades.

3 1/2 stars out of 4

  • Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
  • Starring: Idris Elba, Abraham Attah
  • Rated: Not Rated, but for mature audiences
  • Length: 2:16
  • Note: Its theatrical release coincides with its availability on Netflix
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