God I love it when a film comes out of nowhere and punches me right in the gut. Even happier when its theatrical release coincides with the Netflix release. So set some time tonight, ladies and gentlemen for a trip into some of the deepest, darkest horrors of war and child soldiers. You know, fun things.
We open with a young boy named Agu, living a relatively happy family life in an unknown African country. You get to know his parents, his siblings, and his friends with such exquisite detail that it makes losing them to the brutality of a civil war all the more unbearable. Agu’s life is saved by a man known only as the “Commandant” (played by Idris Elba) and his battalion of child soldiers. Agu is quickly trained, brainwashed, and learned in the ways of guerilla warfare as he carries out war crimes at the behest of the Commandant.
I don’t use the phrase “war crimes” lightly either. You really start second guessing yourself as you’re both horrified and sympathetic to the boy as he and his friends gun down unarmed men, women, and children, engage in rape, and resort to torture. But the film captures all these details in unflinching camerawork, confronting you with all these stories you’ve likely read in a news article here and there but rarely see on film.
Actually, I can’t recall off the top of my head any film that discusses the topic of child soldiers at all. Perhaps Blood Diamond, but even that film looks like a Marvel movie next to this. This felt more like running a gauntlet in the same way 12 Years a Slave confronted me with the terror of slavery in the United States. And I say that comparison highly favorably, since it made me recall another time I felt good to be depressed.
Complimenting the stunning cinematography are the two leads giving it their all with Idris Elba and newcomer, Abraham Attah. Elba is perhaps one of the most despicable characters I’ve ever seen committed to celluloid and he gives yet another go-for-broke performance to add to his already impressive resume. Though while the man’s best performances have been captured in television, this is truly his first film that I say deserves at the very least an Academy Award nomination.
And of course we have Abraham Attah as our protagonist. My God, this kid is something to special. To see him go from living a life of a complete home to committing atrocities in the name of the Commandant is tragic to witness. Even more so because you BELIEVE he is going through this descent into hell as he himself begins to doubt the existence of God or his status as a human being.
Directing these two fine actors is Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director of the excellent first season of True Detective (he hasn’t even directed the much maligned second season which REALLY felt his absence). The man weaves a powerful story and knows exactly where to point his camera in several vicious scenes of warfare so you can truly appreciate the little details. Simultaneously he composed a script that I’m sure does right by the source material written by Uzodinma Iweala.
If I have a complaint about the film at all (I do, it’s the only thing keeping this film from a perfect rating) is that the film could have ended about 10 minutes early. The denouement may have been necessary in the book, but in the film, it just feels off and weirdly paced compared the rest of the excellence I saw on screen.
Best part about this movie? I don’t have to tell you to run to the theater to see it. You can pull up Netflix tonight and watch it after dinner. I rarely ever implore people to watch certain movies because I know everyone has certain tastes, but this is one I’m BEGGING you to see. This is filmmaking of the highest calibur and easily belongs in my Top 3 of 2015. This deserves the highest possible…
EDIT: Upon reflection, this film deserves a higher rating…
BETTER THAN SEX!!