Richard Shepard (The Matador) Talks Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation

Netflix's first original movie, a heartbreaking tale of boy soldiers, is a thing of beauty made about a world of horror.

Warning: spoilers ahead

In a season of extraordinary visual effects, perhaps this year’s most amazing one involves no CGI manipulation at all. It’s the heartbreaking change to the face that young actor Abraham Attah undergoes as he transitions from a happy young boy to a deadly child soldier in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s searing and vital Beasts of No Nation. Attah’s very soul seems taken from him, his childhood innocence washed away in a sea of indignity and blood until all that is left are his haunted eyes. This is an unbelievable performance, and the very heart of the movie. We see the brutality and immorality of war through this boy’s eyes, but he is no mere witness – he’s both a victim and a perpetrator of some of the most brutal war scenes ever put on film. You will want to turn away, but somehow you can’t, because the emotional intensity of the storytelling is so strong, so artful, it demands your attention.

Set in an unnamed West African country, Fukunaga’s film follows Agu (Attah) from his mischievous innocence, through the traumatizing slaughter of much of his village. His mother and sister escape, but his father and brother are killed, and Agu flees into the jungle, alone and terrified and deeply unprepared for the horrors that are to follow. Horror is personified by the charismatic Commandant played by Idris Elba. He’s the leader of a group of rebels. Many of his soldiers are children. It doesn’t take long before the abandoned Agu is taken in by the Commandant. And quickly after that, Agu is initiated into a world that is pure mayhem.

As I said, this is not easy stuff. Yet Fukunaga is such an adroit and talented filmmaker that none of it feels exploitative. He’s an artist as director – using music, his own camerawork and his supremely talented cast and crew as tools to tell a story that goes far beyond what most movies dare to tell. Agu’s transition to brutal killer is the stuff of nightmare, yet it is very real; it happens in the world we live in. In making this film, in telling us a story of one boy, Fukanaga exposes us to the dreadful fate that has afflicted thousands of boys.

Idris Elba gives an indelibly shaded performance as the Commandant. It’s clear why hundreds follow him into senseless violence. He’s part Kurtz, part Kilgore. He’s a killer, with a cold-eyed bloodlust that seems insatiable. He’s a deeply offensive yet completely compelling by-product of the insanity of war, and you can’t take your eyes off him. At first I was thrown by a famous face in a movie that felt so authentic and un-Hollywood, but the moment passed quickly and I too fell under his spell. This man is a monster, but he’s also a savior. That dichotomy is what makes this film so troubling. It gets under your skin.

Beasts of No Nation is probably too long, its ending maybe too hopeful. But these are minor quibbles. I was transported. Early in the second act, a heinous thing happens to Agu at the hands of the Commandant. Having snorted some drugs and taken over a village, the Commandant, high on his own obscenity of violence, calls the young boy up to his private hut. The heart races and dies a little as it becomes clear that the Commandant wants more from Agu then just his loyalty. Later, deeply shaken and devastated, the sexually brutalized Agu leaves the hut. He sits by a fire, and his friend, another child soldier, Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) puts his arm around Agu to comfort him. It’s an incredibly simple scene, and yet it breaks your heart. Humanity survives even in a world that’s dead-set on destroying it.

From directing Sin Nombre to Jane Eyre to the impossibly good first season of True Detective (but, famously, not the second), Fukanaga has shape-shifted as director from genre to genre. Yet his impeccable sensitivity for expert performances and arresting visuals carries from film to film. Here, he takes a story I doubt would ever be made elsewhere, and fills it with unexpected humor, deep heart and an unwavering eye toward seeing the things we don’t ever want to see, in a way that brings us in, not shuts us out.

Much has been made of the fact that Netflix will distribute this movie in America. For me, as a filmmaker, I applaud Netflix’s cojones in taking this film on. This is not easy stuff. And if streaming this movie in the comfort of your home is a way of allowing more people to see it, then why not? More people should see this unique film – it’s a thing of beauty made about a world of horror.

Richard Shepard is an Emmy- and DGA Award-winning director. His work includes 10 episodes of Girls, the features The Matador and Dom Hemingway, and the documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale.