SPOILER WARNING: Beasts of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukanaga, 2015)
Beasts of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukanaga, 2015) offers an unrelenting look at the realities of war and its consequences upon those who take part in it. Specifically, the film focuses on child soldiers, namely the young Agu (Abraham Attah), and the processes by which they are militarized and desensitized as they rapidly become killers. At the head of the harrowing process is the monstrous, but also emotional, Commandant (Idris Elba). The Commandant does not mince words or tactics when it comes to the war that he is fighting, but what truly sets him apart from most of his ilk is the fact that he seems to harbor something of a conscious. However, this fact does not make him any less menacing, and in many ways it makes him all the more fearsome. He forms an almost immediate attachment to Agu and decides to essentially deem him as something of a successor. This does not spare Agu in any way though, and in many respects it makes his experience all the more harrowing. The full force of the Commandant is unleashed on Agu as he is shown to abuse his young charge physically, sexually, and mentally. Through the eyes of Agu, the Commandant is shown to be a terrifying force of nature that perceives the war he is fighting as more than just a physical conflict; as to him it is spiritual clash as well.
The Commandant seeks nothing more than winning the war he is fighting. Each conflict that he and his men take part in is a mean to this end, as he hope to eventually take the capital of the unnamed capitol country he calls his home. To accomplish this, nothing is beyond the Commandant, not even the killing of those that would be his soldiers. The unique way in which the Commandant perceives his conflict is first on display as Agu undergoes the initiation to become a soldier. As a part of the ritual, Agu “dies” and is “born again,” while also being beaten and scarred. Those that fail at any part of their initiation are swiftly and remorselessly executed, but Agu survives to witness further horrors. However, the new world that Agu must face is one that will command that his old self must die.
Agu’s true death comes when he is commanded by the Commandant to execute a prisoner. In the first battle that Agu faces, he is nothing more than an ammo boy. Not even firing a weapon, it at first appears that he may have been spared, in a sense, but the Commandant soon resumes his brutal initiation techniques. Commanding Agu to kill a prisoner with nothing more than a machete, the Commandant ensures that his newest soldier will get his hands dirty while he also believes that he is doing the right thing. The Commandant tells Agu that the man he is killing is one of the ones that killed his family. Whether or not Agu actually believes this is irrelevant, and the effect is the same as the Commandant is successful in changing the narrative, through brainwashing, to one that will serve his end goals. Agu’s rebirth is initiated by the Commandant, who sees himself as something of a savior to those around him.
Soon after this, the full effect of the Commandant’s view of war is demonstrated. As he witnesses his men fail to take a bridge, he decides that he must intervene himself. But the Commandant does not personally take up a weapon, he never actually holds a gun until his final scene in the film, but instead he simply leads his men on a march that results in their victory. His power is evidenced, as he does without almost any real strategy what his other commanders could not do. But to the Commandant, there is not any real question as to why he is so successful. He knows that he is more than just a military figure to his men, as he has become a spiritual leader as well. His initiation techniques have proven themselves successful and he has become a figure whose power cannot be questioned. His men hold unwavering faith in him, as he has placed himself as something of a father figure to all of his men. But all is not perfect for the Commandant. Beasts of No Nation soon reveals that the methods of this enigmatic figure are too harsh for even his own leaders, and it is intended by them that he be removed from his very public position of power. Not at all content with this turn of events, the Commandant leads his men away on his own personal campaign, while also arranging the death of his second-in-command. The loyalty with which his men follow him is again a testament to his hold over them, as they essentially seal their fates with their actions. But these actions lead to the ultimate downfall of the Commandant, but also the revelation of what drives him.
As time passes, it soon becomes apparent that the Commandant has led his men down a path without a good ending. For him, the end goal was always winning the war, but now that they have broken with those above them this end is no longer possible. When the film returns to the Commandant and his soldiers, it is apparent that they have gone as far as they can go. Out of ammo and low on every other resource, the men have become increasingly disillusioned with their once all-powerful commander. Soon informed by one of his men that they are leaving as there are not any more bullets and they cannot hope to fight the war in the condition that they are in. The Commandant is far from content with this end, and it is here that he finally dons a gun as he struggles to maintain his hold over his men. But by personally wielding a weapon, the Commandant is revealed to have lost his true power and his true weapon: his words. The Commandant attempts to regain control by way of his most deadly weapon, as he gives a final speech to his men:
You think you can just go and do what you want in peace? You will go back to your village and your family will not associate themselves with you. Huh? You will be nothing. You and your uneducated, poor mind, you’ll be nothing. Nobody will care for you. Huh? Look at you. And you will wake up and you will rise and see the sun rise and see the sun set, and you can just wait all day, all day, with thousands of men just like you, waiting for somebody to give you a job. Huh? That’s what you want to go and do? You are stupid! You have nothing! No future! I am your future.
But even these words are not effective as his men still leave him. However, this speech serves another purpose as it reveals the true motivations of the Commandant, as he sees a world with nothing more than war. War may be a means to an end for him, but there is nothing outside of winning or loosing it. The men leave the Commandant alive, and as his speech reveals, with nothing.
The Commandant is a figure of unrelenting methods and motivations. In many ways, fear is a motivator for the Commandant as he knows that there is noting for him outside of war. His methods and means reinforce this, as nothing is outside his realm of possibilities. War has become the only thing he can exist in, and because of this it has become a spiritual event as well. He does not need to wield a weapon to win battles, as he is powerful enough to his men that they are inspired by nothing more than his words and presence. But his own convictions are his downfall as well, as he cannot accept anything that might mean that he cannot continue his war. This is why he breaks with the Supreme Commander (Jude Akuwudike) and leads his men down a doomed path. For the Commandant, defeat is better than a war without a conclusion. But he is not even granted this as his men abandon him and he is left alive. Realizing that even Agu has turned on him, he tells his favorite soldier to shoot him, but he is not granted his request. Beasts of No Nation leaves the Commandant alive, with both his principles and spirits broken, and therefor essentially dead.