Beasts of No Nation lives in the space between realism and allegory. Uzodinma Iweala’s original novel approaches that space but seems far less concerned with it, narrated entirely by the young central character, Agu, in his simplistic present-tense dialect. A child soldier in West Africa, Agu’s journey in the novel is one of survival. His family is killed, and to avoid being killed himself he accepts an offer to join the army of the Commandant, a rebel warlord. At first he declares “I am not wanting to fight”; eventually, though, Agu is killing with knives and guns, willfully attacking “enemies”, tearing through his war-stricken country at the whim and call of the Commandant.
Everything about the novel is heartbreaking, but nothing more so than the sense that Agu is too young to realize that his journey across his country is also a descent into hell. The first-person narration is one that nonetheless conveys the bare minimum about Agu’s own thoughts and feelings about his actions, and yet at times it conveys more than enough. “I am liking it” — this is what Agu says about the sound of his knife hitting a woman’s head, about the splashing blood. It’s brutal in how direct it all is, in its impossibility and in its plausibility. Iweala never has to name the West African country or convince us that someone like Agu really exists; Agu very definitely does.
And yet at the beginning of the film version of Beasts of No Nation we’re reminded of how we — the comfortable, movie-watching public who spends time subscribing to Netflix, toggling through the entertainment available for immediate streaming, and complaining about having nothing to watch —are made aware of the lives of young people like Agu, and that’s within the confines of a television set. The Agu we meet in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film isn’t entirely different than the Agu of Iweala’s novel, but we do meet him at an earlier point. This Agu spends his day with his friends peddling a television set with no screen: it’s “Imagination TV”, the young schlock promoters say, and as Agu changes the channels the rest of his friends act out telenovelas, workout shows and kung fu movies from the other side of the set. He and his friends manage to barter the Imagination TV for some food, and then Agu goes home to his family.
A few scenes later all of those people are dead. His friends and family murdered by a controlling faction of the army, Agu flees into the jungle. From here on Beasts of No Nation becomes more and more difficult to watch, and in a way it’s fitting that it become more and more allegorical and less and less “realistic”. In one scene the lush green jungle appears red, every leaf on every tree seeming wet with blood as Agu becomes more and more like a warrior and less and less like a child. It’s arguably more difficult to realize Agu in a film than it is on the page: a protagonist who is naive to the horrors around him and yet still able to elicit our sympathy. Agu could have been cold, unfeeling, but he’s quite the opposite. Fukunaga and young actor Abraham Attah do incredible things with Agu. His occasional voiceover recalls some of the personal heft that the book relies on, his dialect idiosyncratic but no less effective for it. “God, I have killed a man,” he whispers. “It is the worst sin…and still I am knowing it is the right thing to be doing.”
This is the dark heart of Beasts of No Nation, and the dark heart of the real-world indoctrination of children into war: sins, even the inherent worst sin, can be justified with enough pressure. That pressure in Beasts comes in the hulking form of the Commandant, played to near-perfection by Idris Elba. If any one being asserts the mythical quality of this tale over the realistic, it’s Elba’s Commandant. His methods are simply sickening. Nearly everything Agu does for the rest of the film seem dictated by the Commandant, whether it’s the explicit killing of a hostage or the raid of a village, and his booming speeches to the group at large all seem directed at Agu specifically. If Agu is Blood Meridian‘s kid, then the Commandant is Judge Holden, the otherworldly force that holds power over all men but seeks a special relationship over each of them. To a viewer the reasoning of the Commandant is obviously flawed, but it doesn’t matter what we think — to Agu, it is “the worst sin…the right thing to be doing.”
There’s a Colonel Kurtz quality to the Commandant, too, and even though we recently lauded a comparison between Apocalypse Now and Sicario, Beasts snatches the rights to that comparison from right under the cartel thriller’s nose. Perhaps that’s the height of a cinematic experience that pairs the hyper-realistic with the allegorical and mythological, with Willard’s journey from a buttoned-up briefing room to a shadowy jungle temple still telling one single story, and in fact that juxtaposition is apparent from that first scene of Beasts of No Nation. Just calling it a cinematic experience, as we just did, is then at odds with the consideration of the real Agu, the one wrapped up in civil unrest right now. And ultimately that quality of Beasts — the right now — is paired with the more universal, far-reaching, timeless quality of the loss of innocence in a way that can only be called masterful. Beasts of No Nation is uncompromising but absolutely vital viewing, and it’s a rare instance where the most important film of the year is also one of the most beautiful.