There are two ways to see Beasts of No Nation when it arrives this week: via Netflix, which underwrote the film, or in the limited theaters that have agreed to show it. (America’s four largest chains have refused—not because of the movie’s content, but as a sort of kamikaze stand against the encroachment of VOD.) Cary Fukunaga’s stark, beautifully shot drama was likely never meant to be a blockbuster; its brutal account of a child soldier in an unnamed African country is far too discomfiting for wider audiences. It absolutely does belong on a big screen, though, and more important, it just deserves to be seen.
As Beasts begins, Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah) is a bright, happy-go-lucky kid with a loving family and a sly sense of humor. But when government forces breach his village, his only chance of survival is to fall in with a ragtag band of underage rebels led by the swaggering, charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba, playing every shade). As Agu is indoctrinated, scenes of boredom and brotherhood alternate with savage bursts of violence, and the movie becomes a gut-level portrait of exactly how a person’s soul and psyche can be dismantled, brick by brick. It’s a credit to Fukunaga as a filmmaker—and his outstanding cast, nearly all of them first-timers aside from Elba—that Beasts is both audaciously styled and heartbreakingly human in scale. By never attempting to soften or justify the wages of war, he makes the staggering cost of it all the more resonant. A