By Elias Savada.
There’s a certain phantasmagoria at play in Alejandro Landes’ Monos, in which a group of eight teenagers are living an odd communal life in the mountains of Latin America. Maybe it’s the altitude – they live in a spartan, often muddy, encampment high above the clouds and the apparent skirmishes in the valley below them – or just their young minds being molded by a remote, quasi-terrorist rebel group called The Organization. For the most part, they frolic when not being trained or admonished by a diminutive leader, “Messenger,” played by ex-guerrilla Wilson Salazar, who visits their encampment and then departs for his next mission, remaining in touch only by a walkie talkie. These children-playing-adults’ only assignment is guarding “Doctora,” the name given their despondent and desperate American hostage (Julianne Nicholson), an engineer later identified as Sara Watson. Despite her captivity, there’s a maternal nature to her presence in the camp.
These ragamuffins call each other by childish names like Bigfoot (Moisés Arias), Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), Smurf (Deiby Rueda), Wolf (Julian Giraldo), Dog (Paul Cubides), Lady (Karen Castrillón), Swede (Laura Castrillón), and Boom Boom (Sneider Castro). They have guns that they use as party favors, shooting them off in celebration of any silly thing. And one of those exuberant outbursts accidentally kills a milk cow placed in their care. Things go downhill from there.
Amongst the boys, there’s a whole lot of wrestling, fighting, and positioning for alpha male power. Some in the group trip out on mushrooms, others have sex, and all lead a rag tag existence in this remote area, until bombs start to explode and an invasion from below lightens up the night sky, presumably a rescue attempt to free the hostage.
Half-way through, the group moves into the jungle below and the film starts looking more like Lord of the Flies as the cast lounges around in their skivvies. Animal instincts abound during various moments in the film, suggesting the darkness of Apocalypse Now when combined with Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), another ode to youthful banality flavored by promiscuity and evil. So, yes, Monos is pretty friggin’ dark.
Director and co-writer (with Alexis Dos Santos) Landes says his inspiration for the film are the splinter groups that have plagued Colombia’s long-running civil war placing the fragile peace agreement between the government and FARC, the key rebel group, on unsteady footing. Only last month that organization’s leaders announced a “new stage of fighting.” Thus the Monos squad in the film is part of that clandestine army and the characters’ youth “serves as a metaphor for Colombia as a nation.” I don’t think Landes wants us to comment on the film as child exploitation, but just as that awkward stage, albeit with decidedly more violence and blood, between puberty and adulthood.
The cast are all first timers except for Nicholson and Arias (making a sharp turn from his days on Hannah Montana). Their preparation consisted of improvisation sessions and military training exercises. When filming I suspect the script itself was fairly tight, considering how claustrophobic some of the jungle scenes are and how close Dutch cinematographer Jasper Wolf gets to his subjects and tracks them as they prance and run about sporting mud-caked bodies.
Combined with the incredible, minimalist score and sound design by Mica Levi the film has an otherworldly feel, a fever dream for young and abandoned souls, subservient while also at battle with themselves and their commanders. They’re not quite sure about the who or why their rebellious nature is aimed against. There’s dissention in the ranks as Rambo tries to flee. The film delves into separate story lines in its final moments: Rambo’s newly found family on the outskirts of civilization, Doctora’s latest escape attempt, and the devolution of the remaining members of the child warriors.
During one of her romps through the jungle, Moore takes center stage, showcasing amateur survival skills to chop her way through the brush, deal with some nasty insects, and deal with some ravaging water. Otherwise, she allows her young cast to galvanize your attention.
Monos reflects on the darker side of life, hypnotizing you with its audio and visual stylings. War, even in the smallest space offered here, is not pretty.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).