By Hank Bartholomew
An unflinching and powerful story of a young boy’s life in a West-African country torn apart by war, Beasts of No Nation is quite possibly one of the best films of 2015, if not the decade. It follows Agu (Abraham Attah), a young child whose father and brother are killed by government soldiers during fighting in the supposed “buffer-zone” village in which Agu’s family resides. After seeing these two family members shot to death while unarmed out of hysteria and fear that they may be rebels, Agu flees into the jungle, just barely escaping from the soldiers, who attempt to kill him as well. Soon after, he meets a warlord and battalion leader in the rebel army, known only as “Commandant” (Idris Elba). Joining this cause out of anger at his family’s deaths and also a lack of other options, the 12-year-old Agu becomes a child soldier, rising through the ranks to even become a member of the Commandant’s personal squad. As Agu struggles to find his identity and realize what is right and wrong, the Commandant fights his own personal demons, with both hoping to understand who they are in this time of bloodshed and violence.
What separates Beasts of No Nation from other war films or dramas set in war time is its delivery. Many films set during a violent background rely on graphic depictions of violence, with gruesome injuries and deaths to get the severity of their message across. And to be fair, many of these films succeed, and are excellent movies. But Beasts focuses less on detailed violence and more on simplicity. The most shocking and powerful factor of this picture is that it is children fighting in war. Agu kills enemy soldiers and is shot at in turn. And this is delivered deadpan. After a few weeks fighting under the Commandant, Agu and his fellow child soldiers are treated much the same as any other fighter in this battalion. And what makes this so devastating and moving is how little is made of this throughout much of the film. By not calling attention to it, the film showcases just how tragic this situation is, as if it’s supposed to be normal.
Costume design was something that really stood out to me. The blend of traditional African dress and more casual common-place clothing is fantastic, and I think only serves to further the idea this film puts forth, of how a series of countries are attempting to balance their modern conflicts with their historical identity. Costumes are both simplistic and detailed, and each character has a specific costume, with Idris Elba’s Commandant being the only character to sport a blue shirt that stands out, strengthening the concept of him as a superior leader and special figure to his soldiers. Additionally, as Agu progresses on his journey with the Commandant, the way he dresses alters, gathering new necklaces and patches, and while it is never specifically stated that he gathered these from his fellow fallen comrades or enemies he killed, it can be assumed, and I think this is an impressive little detail.
All in all, Beasts of No Nation is one of a kind, and, in my opinion, remarkably overlooked. It is an eye-opening portrayal of an issue that, while it may seem well-publicized, still deserves more attention. It is incredible and moving, and I would highly recommend it to film viewers of all types.