“I’m a good boy from a good family,” says Agu (Abraham Attah), the preteen protagonist of the drama “Beasts of No Nation.” His father is a teacher, his mother a churchgoing woman. Big brother is a muscle-head teen with a crush on local girl.
As civil war comes to his village (in an unnamed African country), summary executions become common and soon Agu is left alone and on a run for his life. He finds a new family as a child soldier under a rebel Commandant (Idris Elba). “A boy is very, very dangerous,” he says. “He has two eyes to see, two hands to strangle and fingers to pull a trigger. Leave this in my charge. I will be training him to be a warrior.”
The Commandant is charismatic leader, a master of indoctrination and brainwashing who weaves a protective web around the young boy, creating a family unit for the boy as he turns him into a killer. Agu is convinced the very real war is personal; it’s a battle against the people who killed his father. He ‘s taught the art of cruelty, how to hack a man to death with a machete and kill people by inserting grenades into their mouths.
The trip into the heart of darkness is sidelined by the Commandant’s own journey into Colonel Kurtz territory. Disillusioned, Agu begins to understand “the only reason we are fighting anymore is to be dying.”
“Beasts of No Nation” is a harrowing experience. It’s not the kind of movie you leave the theatre saying, “I really enjoyed that.” Instead, it’s an experience, an unforgiving film that begins by allowing us to get to know Agu’s family before tragedy strikes, then torments us with the terrifying sound of gunfire heard from inside a hiding place before showing us Agu’s descent into a hellish kind of survival. It’s ruthless and brutal, perhaps best summed up in the plainspoken words of the boy himself. “I saw terrible things and I did terrible things.” Be prepared, he may be a lot of things, but he’s not a liar.