Monos is a visually stunning, thematically unnerving piece of cinema. The best way to describe it is a child soldier version of Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now mixed with Lord of the Flies, a survivalist story that slowly descends into barbarism. Not much is explained about the outside world surrounding these characters or their greater ambitions, but I suspect that was never the point for director Alejandro Landes. It’s a stripped down examination of what war and survival can do to someone, even this family-like band of teenage militants, when the veneers of normality are stripped away. You see this film, you’re going to be thinking about it for a long time, a feat normally earned by the best of cinema.
Taking place in an unspecified Central-American or South American country, a group of teenage soldiers dubbed the Monos are positioned atop a mountain overlook base. We don’t know their actual names, with the squad referring to one another by codenames like “Lady, “Wolf,” and “Rambo.” They work on behalf of a mysterious benefactor known as The Organization, whose motives are never specified but are likely responsible for the country’s civil war. Stationed at the base with no combat experience, the militants have something a freeform routine schedule, mixing their training regiments with soccer matches, parties and open sexual experiences.
Yet the order of business is to watch over an American prisoner referred to as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson), as well as a milk cow on loan from the Organization. Duty meets pleasure, if you would prefer. Yet the squadron’s playful use of violence (i.e. firing rifles in the air, hitting one another) soon produces unforeseen consequences, endangering their mission’s orders. On top of that, the civil war soon reaches their base, forcing Monos to transport Doctora to a new location. To do this, they must venture into the surrounding jungle and deal with the growing resentment and distrust between one another that threatens the group’s camaraderie. And that’s where the madness begins.
The first thing you’ll notice about this film is how jaw-droppingly gorgeous it looks. Thanks to cinematographer Jasper Wolf, Monos provides a disturbingly surreal contrast between the mountainside’s vastness and the jungle’s more claustrophobic interiors. It’s flat-out nature porn, taking in both geographical locations as places that humanity, even during war, can’t conquer. Yet the mountains have a familiarity to them, its dense altitude matched by green fields and old stone structures to resemble a basic household for the characters. The jungle offers no such luxuries, surrounded by hostile insects and unruly rapids beyond anyone’s control. This is a stark contrast to the character shots, which pull into their faces so close you start to notice them going reasonably mad.
It’s worth noting that, while Monos’ visuals are captivating, there’s not much tangible plot happening. The squadron has no goals until they’re asked to enter the jungle, which is well past the film’s one third mark. Following orders is the plot development, yet even that collapses as the team begins turning on one another and their mission. The further they go into the jungle, the more violence begins dominating the squadron’s actions for nothing more than the sake of violence itself. Petty concerns of how someone behaved or who wanted to be whose sexual partner become cause for a gun in your face. By the film’s midpoint, the team, hijacked by member Bigfoot (Moises Arias) start dressing themselves in mud and war paint, engaging potentially hostile pedestrians for no other reason than they can. Metaphorically and literally, venturing further into nature normalizes these animalistic instincts.
What amazed me is that, besides Julianne Nicholson, almost all the main actors are newcomers yet perform like seasoned professionals. That’s impressive given the film’s dark subject material. The only other familiar face is Arias, best known to Disney Channel fans for his time on Hannah Montana. This performance, however, is anything but Disney. Arias is the greatest victim of this militaristic madness, gradually asserting leadership over Monos as he embraces the chaos rather than follow his unseen superior’s chain of command. Disturbing as it may be, his madness still feels like a continuation of this ideology-less conflict that indoctrinated the squad from a young age. They were raised to fight but we never know what for; the film simply strips down their motives and options until fighting is all that’s left to justify what they’re doing.
It’s hard to say there’s a protagonist to this story, unless you count those who wish to escape. Doctora, of course, is a prisoner of war, and Nicholson, despite not getting much backstory either, still presents herself as someone whose imprisonment hasn’t deterred her resistance. But the other, a soldier named Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), is a more tragic case. Mocked by the other soldiers for being soft, there’s a moment where Rambo comes across a family living in the jungle and briefly gets to spend time with them. Their bonding session is banal, almost casual, but to Rambo it feels foreign in the same sense as nature driving his team to barbarism. Without an excuse or scenario for them to enact violence, it’s hard to tell if these kids know how to survive outside their devotion to violence.
Grade: 5 out of 5 Stars
Monos is a dark, surrealist nightmare about war’s base instincts, told in an almost dialogue-less manner. The fact that its characters are technically teenagers make the premise even more uncomfortable. Its subjectivity leaves much of the character’s fates undetermined, forcing you to think even harder about their descent into madness. Guns, horror and pig heads on sticks- this is one hell of moviegoing experience.