“This is an imagination TV,” young Agu says to a border patrol officer, trying to sell an old-fashioned box with its screen and innards removed. Agu and his friends create their own show on the other side of the hollow box, charming the officer into making a trade. In a town on the edge of war, in an unnamed West African country, these kids must make do with the scraps passed down to them.
But when fighting breaks out in their town, Agu (played by newcomer Abraham Attah) meets his own reinvention in order to survive. The haunting Beasts of No Nation follows this boy’s induction into a guerrilla fighter army after his hometown is invaded and his family torn apart, some escaped, the rest brutally executed before his eyes. The guerilla commandant (played by Idris Elba), finding Agu alone in the jungle, spares the boy’s death by subjecting him to a soldier’s life.
Beasts of No Nation became a passion project for Cary Fukunaga, offering the movie on Netflix when traditional distributors passed; Fukunaga wrote and directed, adapting a short novel by Uzodinma Iweala. Among the horrors of this young boy’s servitude – early on, Agu murders a man to gain the commandant’s trust; later, he endures his leader’s sexual abuse – are moments of surprising beauty, which feel striking in contrast to the dehumanizing violence. Fukunaga is a master of atmosphere and psychology. His most stunning shots – the soldiers marching through a lush green jungle, the haze of smoke in the trenches – match Agu’s inner duality, the imagination TV of his recent past pitted against the brutal realities of army life.
Attah carries the movie remarkably on his own. He capably shows Agu’s shift from naïve youth to hardened adolescent, his face growing more passive as the movie goes on. By the end, when Agu is taken into care of a missionary shelter, Attah is hollowed out, barely expressive. He is helped by Elba, one of the movie’s only professional actors, whose commandant is eerily seductive even at his most despicable. A week after watching, the specifics of the violence have halfway receded – though many scenes are tough to stomach – and I most remember how powerfully the movie fills in Agu’s interior self, his memories playing tug-of-war with the commandant for his own soul. He imagines telling his mother he no longer thinks of the war, “not about any of the things that are jumping into my head. I am wanting to lie down on a warm ground, with my eyes closed and the smell of mud in my nose.” “I just want to be happy in this life,” he says after his rescue.
According to a report from Netflix, three million North American subscribers have streamed Fukunaga’s movie. Major cinemas chose not to run the movie in its simultaneous Netflix release, and so it played on only 31 screens. Access is everything in today’s media climate, and I welcome more chances to see major directors premiering independent movies online. Releasing in both mediums seems like playing it safe, in some ways, but the experiment makes clear an audience’s preference for watching at home, if given the option. Mad Max and The Martian need big screens, with plenty of popcorn and soda for sale, but I understand seeking out a quietly devastating experience like Beasts of No Nation on one’s own. Hats off to Cary Fukunaga and Netflix for taking the risk.