WHITE PEOPLE only show up for about seven seconds in Beasts of No Nation. Agu (Abraham Attah), a West African child solider, is trudging down a road with the rest of the Commandant's (Idris Elba) "battalion" of heavily armed adolescents when a UN convoy passes by, going the other direction. A photog in a bulletproof Land Rover snaps pictures, while a woman in the back seat looks on in horror. And then they're gone. In another film, we'd be following those well-meaning aid workers, but here, we never see them again. Beasts of No Nation never looks away from Agu. This is his story.
The efficient dismantling of sentiment and structure is a trademark of writer/director/cinematographer Cary Fukunaga, who's best known for helming the first season of True Detective. The same deft hand and ghoulishly fecund aesthetic is on display in Beasts—but while Detective floundered on the shoals of gnomic middle-class existentialism, Fukunaga trains his eye on a single African boy's descent into a single heart of darkness. This time around, there isn't a single wasted shot or extraneous monologue.
Beasts will be debuting on Netflix the same day it opens in theaters, which potentially raises the question why you'd want to see it in a theater. I'd suggest that it's because there will be times you'll want to look away—to check your phone, to do anything else. But you shouldn't, and in a theater, you can't. The structure of Beasts demands your attention as it curls elegantly upon itself in a Möbius strip of ritual and violence. It's brutal, but it isn't unremittingly bleak in the way that a lot of atrocity tourism can be. Agu and the Commandant are complex characters deserving of our attention. The least we can do is give it to them.