“You must die before you are reborn”
War often leaves as large a psychological scar as physical. Surviving with your life is sometimes not enough to escape the horrors of what’s been done to yourself or those around you. As for what you’ve done—those acts remain forever in nightmare. So when young Agu (Abraham Attah) is asked to share the details of what transpired before and during his time with the NDF rebellion of an unnamed African country, it’s hardly surprising to hear him refuse. This isn’t a bad kid with a hot temper who joined the fight to kill with impunity. He isn’t a monster. Talking about his actions isn’t necessary to understand why they were wrong. He’s been good before and hopes to be good again. Whether that’s possible, no one knows.
But there’s hope where Cary Joji Fukunaga leaves Agu after the terror inflicted upon him in Beasts of No Nation. Or at least we want there to be considering the amount of wars waging throughout the world. Whether that sense comes from Uzodinma Iweala‘s source material or was an addition by Fukunaga, I don’t know. It’s comforting nonetheless after seeing such violent carnage—some of which seems unnecessarily brutal from the get-go. After all, Agu and his family (Ama K. Abebrese‘s Mom, Kobina Amissah-Sam‘s Dad, and Francis Weddey‘s brother) were just small town folk living behind UN-lines away from the fight. They had no allegiances to the army or the NDF and yet the firefight came to engulf them anyway. Innocence during war has only two outcomes: recruitment or death.
Agu was lucky—a relative term—as an NDF Commandant (Idris Elba) decides to use him as a lesson in how no one, no matter his age, is worthless. Having two eyes and two hands means you can hold a gun and shoot. Hearing about his plight and what appears a built-in lust for vengeance towards the enemy only sweetens the pot for the Commandant who goes out of his way to make the boy his own. First come duties as a go-fer, then the moment of taking someone’s life. Drugs enter the equation as well as promises of women and all the while a mission is achieved for the disembodied voice of the Supreme Commander (Jude Akuwudike) over the walkie-talkie. But what are they truly fighting for?
The title isn’t some esoteric notion despite Iweala taking it from an album by Fela Kuti. These soldiers have no nation—or if they do it isn’t the one they’re inside now. Agu would never have been scooped up if so, his getting fingered as a rebel coming from a vindictive curse on his family name. In the end Elba and the rest are merely following orders with the promise of spoils. They’re told where to go, what to secure, and who to kill. Then it’s on to the next stop. Death is therefore handed out remorselessly to anyone who isn’t already a member of the rebellion. It’s shoot first, ask questions later and despite Agu being swept into the chaos, he still attempts to converse with God.
Talk about heart of darkness as Africa transforms from green fields of joy and refugees at the start into a blood-soaked battlefield of machetes piercing through innocent skulls. Power is the only commodity to be traded now and Agu knows it. So even though he wants to stop, he can’t due to fearing what his Commandant might do. He saw fellow trainees murdered when failing tasks and here he is by his leader’s side. One false move could spell disaster so he must follow him deeper and deeper into Hell. Told they’ve become invincible, even the youngest show no fear until bullets rip through their flesh. Their false prophet has numbed them to evolve the passage “Our God is a consuming fire” from wall painting to life.
Fukunaga pulls no punches showing the futility of Agu’s situation whether in false safety at home or war in the jungle. He provides a mute friend with bloodlust (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye‘s Strika) and a slew of hot-tempered boys doing their Commandant’s bidding in hopes of advancement. Even Elba’s character is strung along with promotion, his own ego assuaged with greed until deciding to take matters into his own hands. The war moves from two sides fighting around a hoard of villagers to splintered factions looking to take what they can before victory’s found—mesmerizing fireworks against the night sky immortalizing the extinguishing of life. The whole endeavor is to acquire land by force. Those with guns on the ground will inevitably seek to take a piece themselves.
Elba is fiercely dedicated to the NDF’s quest, his obedience directly linked to his chance for selfish gain. He saves boys like Agu to continue his legacy, cultivate loyalty, and become a fearless God himself miles from oversight. And as long as he’s winning his men won’t think to steal that same claim. The question becomes whether Agu will serve or betray. Has he fully transformed into the murderer we see or is it a means to survive? Attah is a force in his acting debut, wrestling with his own fluctuating identity as circumstances are forced upon him. The time will eventually come to choose returning to the boy he once was or remaining the man he’s become. Until then, though, not even he knows which will win.