Director: Alejandro Landes
Stars: Sofia Buenaventura, Moises Arias, Julianne Nicholson
We in the West, with our soft comforts and first world problems, can grumble about the varying responsibilities resting on our shoulders, but have you ever been entrusted with a hostage in the Colombian wilds at the tender age of sixteen? Thought not. That’s the extreme situation Alejandro Landes thrusts us into with Monos; a terrifying head rush of a film that confronts you with the possibility that you haven’t seen anything as urgent all year.
‘Monos’ is the name given to our ragtag troupe, indoctrinated into The Organization long before we join them on a mountain crest somewhere. Here, totally divorced from civilisation, a code of their own has been adopted. They are their own micro-community; non-binary, sexually adventurous, seemingly out of control yet at other times chillingly disciplined. Partnering up requires consent and is respected. Still, they’re also allowed to get drunk and fool around with automatic weapons. Its a chaotic energy that costs lives early on.
Landes’ camera captures the restlessness and recklessness of these wildlings. He moves with them, turning arcs like dance moves. Or else he cuts rhythmically to Mica Levi’s juddering score (on a par with her work for Jonathan Glazer). Monos‘ sonic palette might recall Under The Skin, but Glazer’s boldness is also echoed in Landes’ sensibilities across the board. His film dares to feel totally out there. An original, even in spite of some obvious precedents.
It’s a bit The Lord of the Flies crossed with Apocalypse Now, but its also much more than any reductive this-meets-that descriptor. Seeing children conditioned and accepting of such intense circumstances is, on its own, grimly mesmeric. That Landes goes on to carve out nuanced characters and mutable character dynamics makes this an eerie gift that keeps on giving.
There is Bigfoot (Moises Arias); probably the most strung out and volatile of the bunch with commitment and the ambition to lead. There is Swede (Laura Castrillón); seemingly the most emotionally open or readable, who wishes to be partnered with young hotshot Boom Boom (Sneider Castro). There’s Dog (Paul Cubides); as downtrodden and irresponsible as his name’s sake. Smurf (Deiby Rueda) is, appropriately, the runt of the litter. Speaking of, there’s Wolf (Julian Giraldo), leader and partner of Lady (Karen Quintero); perhaps the group’s most difficult to read. Last but not least is Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) who identifies as male and is referred to and regarded as such by his peers.
Their ward is ‘Doctora’ Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson); a woman who has been through the mill, is clearly of some worth in this apocalyptic situation, and is destined to go through a fair bit more before her ordeal is over. ‘The Organization’ could be political revolutionaries, it could be cartel. Monos thrusts you into its knife-edge situation without context. Exposition is not forthcoming. But slowly a feeling of understanding grows. Granted, its initially disorientating, and in a sense overwhelming, but this appears to be Landes’ modus operandi, and he keeps mutating the playing field. Monos travels from mountains to jungles and down winding rivers, and each step leads to a new permutation in the collective’s power struggles. It undulates and shimmies, and all the while bristles with the potential for sudden and irreparable violence.
Between these kids we encounter different responses to the concept of duty. Bigfoot is the most fully indoctrinated, it would appear, and his bugging eyes suggest a path to madness already well-trodden, yet given the opportunity he’d be the first to go Kurtz and invent new missions for them to follow. Elsewhere, compassion exists in varying degrees. Self-preservation is shaded throughout the unit. Throughout the first two thirds the platoon rack up a number of secrets kept from their largely unseen commanders. A surprise visit and inspection leads to one of the most crucial scenes, in which they pipe up in turn, ratting one another out for their misdeeds. They’ve been instilled with such fear of reprisal, its hard not to think of so many depictions of cult mentality.
In the midst of such staggering natural beauty, we’re confronted with a seemingly amoral hell-on-earth. These children are so far removed from the world as to seem like the colonisers of Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, with the Colombian terrain their far-off planet. There’s an isolation to the film that gives a sense similar to vertigo. A dizzying disconnect. With no information offered up at the get-go, you’d also be forgiven for thinking these children were the last survivors of some global holocaust. Monos combines all of these things for a cumulative feeling of being at a precipice; forever on the edge of something.
If it disorientates in its beginning, it closes in much the same way. With the same galling confidence, Landes has us exit the picture the hard way, with several narrative and character resolutions left flapping in the wind like cut kite strings. We’re invited to keep doing the work. Stumbling out of the theatre, out into the real world (which feels disorientating and less real now), Monos keeps existing inside us. Landes gave us a window into a world that continues whether we’re looking at it or not.
It’s a bracing set of feelings to try to reconcile. Monos is tough, horrifying, audacious and must’ve provided its young cast with a lifetime of memories and experiences over the course of its ambitious shoot. It’s the kind of film one imagines Werner Herzog would absolutely love, which is as much of an endorsement as it is a warning.
I’ve seen nothing else like Monos in 2019. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything else like it at all.