And horrors definitely do follow. After this genuinely fun opening 15 minutes, a rebel army arrive at Agu’s village. Quickly, his family is slaughtered and he flees into the forest, alone. And whilst struggling to survive in the wilderness, he picked up by an opposing battalion of soldiers, who force him to join their ranks. We never really get any background on why the various factions are spilling blood over this unnamed land, and that’s a good thing. There are obvious parallels to be made with the situation in countries like Uganda, but by avoiding any real life wars it focuses on the terrible plight Agu faces without having to address politics. Regardless of the cause they might be fighting for, recruiting 11-year-olds to kill people with AK-47s is a horror that is actually happening in the world right now, and the film keeps that horrible fact front and centre at all times.
It’s a good half hour until Idris Elba actually appears on scree, but when he does, it’s a powerhouse performance. Elba plays the unit’s leader, known only as ‘the Commandant’, who takes Agu under his wing. He’s utterly terrifying, yet still has that Idris swag. You instantly see why his teenage army loyally follow him despite the insane, warped violence he forces them to undertake. He’s part father figure, part cool older brother, and part school bully. He is electric, scary, and apart from the odd moment where his thick African accent drops into Hackney, it’s up their with The Wire as his greatest ever work.
And those horrible things he makes the kids do? Those are intense AF, y’all. The film is as violent and bleak as you’d expect from the subject matter, and the scenes of rape and pillage are genuinely upsetting. Yet director Cary Fukunaga still makes the film look great. Fukunaga is the guy behind the first season of True Detective, and while there’s nothing to quite match that show’s amazing tracking shot, he makes the violence look absolutely beautiful. He captures the bright searing colours of the environment in a way that manages to avoid the visual clichés you normally get in Hollywood films about Africa.