To take us to a foreign land and immerse us in an African culture we’ve never experienced is no small achievement in itself. In Beasts of No Nation director, screenwriter and cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga goes even further, setting the emotional stakes quite high for his hero, a “good boy” named Agu who is separated from his family and daily routine—going to school, attending church—and trained to be a brutal soldier.
We’re never sure of the cause he’s fighting for, or why his loved ones are slaughtered. All we know is that he winds up as part of a ragtag rebel army of children led by a forceful Commandant, played by Idris Elba. Before long, Agu is brainwashed into following the Commandant’s orders, no matter how violent or horrifying they may be. Like it or not, this rebel battalion is his new family and the Commandant his father figure.
Elba delivers a compelling performance as the military leader who inspires both fear and respect from his youthful soldiers. Whether he is truly following orders from his Supreme Commander or making decisions based on his own mercurial ideas is an open-ended question. But it’s clear that he has a special attachment to Agu and sees him—for better or worse—as a surrogate son.
Fukunaga adapted the novel by Uzodinma Iweala and carefully avoids naming the country where the film takes place. In any event, it is sadly representative of more than one African nation. The filmmaker proved himself with his debut feature, the impassioned Sin Nombre (which deserves to be better known), then tackled an effective remake of Jane Eyre with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender before directing the acclaimed first season of True Detective. Now he adds another feather to his cap with this riveting drama, which debuts in theaters and on Netflix simultaneously. However you choose to see it, it’s well worth watching—and will certainly be a prime subject of conversation as awards season revs up.