Netflix original Beasts of No Nation features Abraham Attah as Agu and Idris Elba as Commandant. Within the first ten minutes, the script goes from semi-intriguing to completely heartbreaking and compelling, almost out of nowhere. This film illuminates the complexity and ambiguity of war. There are certain things which happen in battles like torture, murder, and rape. They aren’t rectifiable yet still an often occurrence. War makes a beast out of both sides, it’s inevitable even when one side is definitely good and the other not. But good and bad can also become quite convoluted in the face of war. So before soldiers go to battle, shouldn’t they know what they’re fighting for? How many wars are fought for nothing more than money? How often do high-powered officials and legislature dictate the fate of their country as citizens both soldiers and civilians die by the thousands while their leaders remain unscathed? Beasts of No Nation explores these very notions.
Agu is a young boy growing up amidst turmoil in his country. When forced to leave, mothers and young children hurry to flee their homes into safety. Many men decide to stay behind in order to fight, defend, and protect their homes. Agu’s father urges his wife to take the young children including Agu out of the war zone. But when Agu tries to get in an overpacked car with his mom and younger siblings, the driver says he won’t take him and forces the young boy to leave. It’s a pivotal, effective and heartbreaking scene. Agu is forced to stay. He is left to fight with his older brother, father, and grandfather.
When the war breaks out the men hide in buildings trying to shield themselves from the semi-automatics and weapons being shot in their direction. Old men, young men, and those in between fight for their lives against a brutal army of vicious merciless soldiers. Needless to say, both Agu’s father and brother give their life to help the boy escape. Agu runs aimlessly into the forest, within only hours, half of his family is decimated and the other half he may never find or see again.
Agu is eventually caught in the forest by the opposing side. Commandant emerges leading a battalion of boys. He decides to take Agu with them. He is then taught how to be a “solider”. When Agu arrives, Commandant’s favorite is a young boy named Strika but being his favorite is a tragic and horrific thing. It requires the young boys to be subjected to sexual abuse. It’s terrifying. But it does illuminate the complexity of power and just how deep it can manipulate and ruin people. Though Strika and Agu know it’s inherently wrong and sadistic, they still look to Commandant as a leader and seek his approval. Strika is almost sad when he finds out that he is no longer the favorite. But only they can comfort each other and ease even just a bit of the insanity and darkness they are undergoing, thus, they become best friends.
Commandant forces Agu to kill an innocent bystander. We watch his innocence, his understanding of himself, and his life slowly drain out of him. Agu understands we understand that killing someone is inherently wrong but it’s also complex because if he doesn’t most likely Commandant will have Strika or someone else kill Agu and then still kill the bystander. In the end, Agu brutally murders the man. There’s blood everywhere. We feel his inner pain, he’s not killing this man out of hate but out of anger for the death of his father, his older brother, for the mother and siblings he lost in the chaos. He’s killing this man out of terror for the inhumane things he’s seen and underwent. Agu doesn’t want to die and so he kills the man.
How many wars are fought with no definitive cause, just two opposing sides brutally massacring each other until one day it ends? This becomes more and more apparent as the movie progresses. No one knows what the war is for. No one can honestly say why they’re killing each other. By the end, the boys come to understand this and they begin to see Commandant for the pathetic vile beast he is. He symbolizes the epitome of darkness. He’s an extortionist – a manipulative sick pedophile. Until this moment, he used his charisma and leadership skills along with his dominance and fear inducing presence to brutally oppress boys into fighting an evil and pointless war. But once the boys realize they’re only fighting because Commandant is telling them to and that there’s no true cause, his power over them no longer reigns and they are set free. The boys simply leave him in a field yelling powerless insults at them. He tries to regain a control he will never have again. His folly is fully revealed at this moment and shows how quickly power shifts.
Once a civil war is over, both sides must pick up the pieces and learn to be neighbors and citizens of the same country again, one which was ransacked with violence, murder, and unspeakable things. Literally, your neighbor could have been fighting against you in a war. It’s a terrifying thought. But it happens all the time.
Agu ends up in what seems to be an orphanage of young boys who too have experienced the brutality and darkness of war. They try to ease Agu’s pain, to make him learn to enjoy life again, to move past his history. But we begin to see, even a whole lifetime may not be enough to move on from the time he spent in hell. The directors of the orphanage try to get him to talk about it, trying to help him see this is the only way he can start to live again. But Agu remains silent. The last scene is of Agu speaking to one of the directors profoundly saying, “I saw terrible things and I did terrible things. So if I am talking to you it will make me sad and it will make you too sad. In this life, I just need to be happy in this life. If I am telling this to you, you’re saying that I’m some sort of beast or devil and I’m all of these things, but I also have a mother, father, brother and sister. Once they loved me.”