The story surrounding Netflix’s first big movie has been how unconventional—and how violent—it is.
Beasts of No Nation was initially a passion project for up-and-coming director Cary Fukunaga (director of season one of True Detective). Based on the book of the same name, it tells the story of a 12-year-old boy named Agu in a nameless West African country torn apart by civil war. Agu hides with his family in a neutral zone between warring government and rebel factions, but when his family is executed in cold blood, he’s forced to become a child soldier to survive.
It wasn’t the safest storyline for Netflix to put $12 million behind, especially not with Fukunaga at the helm. Like True Detective and his first film, Sin Nombre, Beasts of No Nationis a stark and gut-wrenching confrontation with human brutality, one that foregoes comic relief, big stars, big screens and just about every other wall Hollywood normally erects to distance us from the headlines.
To get a handle on things, it’s tempting to reduce Agu’s experience to geopolitical or economic themes that pop up. (“Our country is at war,” Agu says as he and his friends try to sell a gutted “imagination TV,” “and we are having no more school. So we are having to be finding ways to be keeping busy.”) However, Fukunaga has said that this is not an “issue film.” Instead, it’s about “how universal our desires are in life”: elemental desires for love, violent retribution and the peace of God.
All of this might best be read in light of anthropologist René Girard, who passed away just a few days ago at 91. Girard’s key historical insight—“an idea so simple, and yet so fundamental, that it seems incredible that no one had articulated it before”—was that every society was marked by a cycle of imitation, scapegoating and systematic violence. “All cultures, and all individuals without exception, participate in violence,” Girard wrote in his last book, The One by Whom Scandal Comes. “Violence is what structures our collective sense of belonging and our personal identities.”
This is true of Agu, who initially finds some solace in the Native Defense Force (the NDF), the rebel group that forces him into battle. His country, his family and his sanity have all been turned upside down by civil war; but the NDF offers a unified band of brothers, many of them his own age, filled with a sense of purpose. Drawn in by a fierce but charismatic Kony-style militiaman called “the Commandant” (Idris Elba), Agu gives himself fully over the NDF to harness some measure of control over his world.
Meanwhile, his mother’s parting words haunt him: “Remember to pray to God everyday. Always pray!” He does just that, unceasingly, but his steady interior dialogue with God weakens in the fog of war. Soon he commits the “worst sin,” murdering a helpless man with another child soldier, “Strika.” His victim—a crying, pleading engineering student—is clearly someone else’s son and brother and not the monster he wants him to be.
Soon, the NDF’s “justice” begins to look just as senseless as his own father’s execution, and their battles become more and more about releasing hidden anguish by finding and murdering victims. Agu is dragged deeper into a gauntlet of superstition, drug use, rape and death, and not surprisingly, he begins to doubt that God has any part in any of it. In scenes out of The Thin Red Line, Agu turns his attention away from the divine (“God is not listening”) and laments existence itself: “Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you cannot shine no more.”
Agu stumbles into the safety of a camp run by a group of missionaries as suddenly as he was thrust into the NDF. Here, a Bible is placed at his hesitant trigger finger, and a sign declaring “Jesus Loves You” collides with the memory of “terrible things.” Agu remains stone-faced, scarred by ten lifetimes of horrors.
But a subtle transition happens in the last few minutes, and no student of Girard will fail to notice the crucified Christ above the shoulder of one of the missionaries, nor the words of comfort he offers Agu: “I’ve been there, remember? We are only here to help you.”
Girard was no pessimist; he saw the endless cycle of society’s violence as being turned on its head once and for all as the violent sacrifice of Christ, “who reuses the scapegoat mechanism, at his own expense, in order to subvert it.” The Crucifixion was both an anthropological and religious revelation of the innocence of victims, and in its wake, and only in its wake, every last act of violence is emptied of all meaning and force.
In this light, Beasts of No Nation is a two-fold story about rescue: not only rescue from impossibly violent circumstances but from the despair of violence itself. Agu speaks tenderly of the love of his mother and father; he declares that the beasts and devils of war have no real claim over him and he dashes into the surf with other boys in a kind of baptism. Surrounded by the Crucifix, the Gospel and the memory of love, it’s as if he senses a promise without being able to articulate it: that the light of God conquered his violence by entering into it.
The question Beasts of No Nation leaves us with is the same that towering French thinker posed to the world: Will we follow?