A child’s mind is malleable. They are capable of persisting through complex situations that would linger in the psyche of an older person, and can be more willing to transition into new environments and surroundings thanks to limited perspective and experience. Good and affectionate guidance can mold children into wonderful human beings. But that adaptability can be equally negative depending on who is flexing the child’s mental muscles. A supple and innocent mind can even conform to its own destruction when in the hands of a broken sculptor, which serves as the primary examination offered by Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation (2015).
And so we meet Agu (Abraham Attah), a child soldier who witnessed the disappearance of his family in one sweeping assault when the borders of the war zone in which he lived shrunk and instantly sucked him into deadly conflict. He shifts from an innocent boy trying to sell locals a broken “imagination” television to a hardened child mercenary in the name of survival. His initial charm serves as a powerful introduction to his character, and renders his fate all the more heartbreaking as we witness his childhood, his dignity, and his morals get stripped from him through the apparent protection and influence of a patriarchal overseer known only as The Commandant (Idris Elba). We witness the emotional and spiritual damage caused by living as a child soldier in a vivid and personal way.
Beasts is set in an unnamed African country wrecked by civil war. This ambiguity of locale parallels the point of view of its subject, who is too young to process the details of his environment. After Agu’s family is shipped off to safety, he’s left with only his father and brother and enough time to see them murdered in front of him. He escapes into the bush where he encounters The Commandant and his ragtag battalion of mostly children. “A boy is a dangerous thing,” the Commandant says to (and about) Agu, quickly adopting his freshest recruit and installing him into his surrogate family. But in short order, it’s clear this family offers itself in the most destructive way possible.
Beasts of No Nation employs voiceover spoken by Agu, presented in a serene whisper through broken dialect which never loses sight of the fact he’s a child. Though Agu becomes hardened by the violence and atrocities he sees, and becomes dedicated to fulfilling the demands of The Commandant, listening to and obeying the ambitions of a war he can barely comprehend, he remains a small and scared boy. When Agu is given a machete and told to murder someone as an initiation into the battalion, The Commandant tells him the man kneeling at his feet was responsible for his family’s death; a massive stretch of the truth that doesn’t convince Agu or likely The Commandant himself, but is enough to sway Agu to swing the weapon into the man’s skull. He’s deemed himself Agu’s new father, after all, and encourages atrocities with a hug.
The Commandant is a swaggering and occasionally charming monster capable of manipulating his “family” of child combatants to fight his battles. He’s a war criminal with authority— a dangerous blend that allows a psychopath to dictate the lives of others via false empathy and charm. The New York Times describes him as “a demonic father figure, a seducer and a predator who rules his young charges less through fear than through the motivational grandiosity of a football coach.” He’s clearly terrible yet equally charismatic, which makes it easy to digest that the emotionally-scarred Agu is able to fall prey to his malicious seduction. The Atlantic also characterizes The Commandant well, saying, he’s “not a psychotic general barking orders, but a charming, often frightening father figure who sometimes taps Agu on the head, reminding him that he spared his life.” The last part gives him great control over Agu. The alternative is death in the jungle.
It’s that sentimental brutality that drives home the film’s message about damage inflicted on child soldiers. The Commandant’s crew is held together by drugs, food, structure, mysticism, and companionship—even when that companionship comes in the form of sexual and verbal abuse. Estimates surmise hundreds of thousands of children live in situations like Agu’s in the real world, systematically transforming from children to murderers because of wars and poverty.
As Agu finds himself shifting away from childhood, experiencing drugs and alcohol, sexual violence and physical violence, he continues to punctuate the action with narration evocative of his past. He speaks to his mother, and to God, with diminishing levels of confidence. A powerful scene finds him confusing a woman for his mother. Moments later, as the woman is being raped and another girl is being stomped to death by some of Agu’s peers, he narratively speaks to God and questions if he is watching this atrocity. Agu’s solution is to shoot the woman in the head mid-rape to protect her from her suffering, much to the chagrin of her rapist. It’s not long before Agu finds himself trudging through mud-filled trenches, stepping over the bodies of dying comrades that no longer seem to have any effect on his psyche. There’s nothing left of Agu. He’s a weapon in the holster of The Commandant—a reality that is even more devastating as Agu discovers men exist in the hierarchy above The Commandant, and reveal he’s nothing more than a deranged cog in a much larger system of war.
While it doesn’t detract from the film, Agu’s narration is almost unnecessary throughout Beasts of No Nation, as Attah’s breakout performance impressively conveys the boy’s inner thoughts in plaintive and sympathetic ways. Beasts is a convincing portrayal of an unfortunately believable scenario that turns a child into a killer. Though the film might not have much to offer about solving the problem of child military slavery, it puts its nastily grim image in front of audiences who may otherwise be ignorant or quick to dismiss its reality. Anyone with a child of their own, or at the very least a beating heart in their chest, will find the film’s emotional impact lingering.