At the start of “Beasts of No Nation,” one of the essential achievements of the movie year, a boy from a west-central African village carries the shell of an old television set — “imagination TV,” he calls it. He and his friends cajole a group of Nigerian soldiers stationed in the village into paying the boys to act out different channels on their portable electronic stage.
It’s an exuberant sequence, bursting with life and high spirits. And everything that follows is like being caught in a war-ravaged news story offering no way out, no means of changing the channel.
Agu is the boy, played by a remarkable teenage newcomer, Abraham Attah. With terrifying speed in this unnamed African nation, he becomes a war orphan, and is pulled into the ranks of child soldiers enlisted by a rebel leader known only as “Commandant.” Idris Elba portrays this seductive force of nature, and it’s an extraordinarily rich and troubling performance. What happens to Agu, as he is molded into a killer fighting to retain some sort of moral compass, becomes an experience of unusual power.
There are moments in writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s film, which opens this week in select theaters and on Netflix, that are nearly unwatchable. Yet I never felt emotionally exploited by the terrors on screen. Rather, “Beasts of No Nation” is an act of gripping empathy.
How many old, battered souls do we find in the eyes of child soldiers around the world? Agu’s story is fiction; it comes from the 2005 novel by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala. (Its title refers to a Fela Kuti album.) Over the years a handful of films from different countries have captured the ordeal of children in wartime or its aftermath. Favoring run-and-gun digital camerawork, Fukunaga’s technique does not reach for the stark poetry found in Roberto Rossellini’s “Germany, Year Zero” (1948) or in the Andrei Tarkovsky feature debut “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962, also translated as “My Name is Ivan”). But “Beasts of No Nation” is a major step forward for the director best known for “True Detective” and the theatrical features “Sin Nombre” and “Jane Eyre.” We watch, fearfully, as Agu becomes a trusted confidant of the Commandant, then a witness to the unraveling of the cause he barely understands.
Taking his cue from the novel, Fukunaga relies on precisely the right amount of voiceover observations and reflections spoken by Attah. For such a grim narrative outline, “Beasts of No Nation” barrels forward in a variety of moods and keys. Elba’s performance has a kind of vicious wit, and when the story shifts to the Commandant’s political fortunes — at one point, he and his key lieutenants endure a humiliatingly long wait to see the big boss — Elba reveals the vainglorious cracks behind the mask of an all-too-human monster.
Without revealing too much, I’ll say this about the ending. It offers Agu a place of uncertain, unstable peace, at long last. But Fukanaga’s script, and Attah’s striking performance, does not settle for a placating happy ending. It feels honest and true and dramatically indelible, as does everything that comes before it.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
“Beasts of No Nation” — 4 stars
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 2:16
Opens: Friday; now streaming on netflix.com.