Atop a lonely Latin American mountain, breaching the cloud’s barrier of visibility, eight teenage commandos do their part in an operation neither we nor they fully understand. Their ties to an entity called “The Organization” are, at the start of Monos, unbreakable and unquestioning; living in a feral state, they eagerly await orders from a horse-riding and harsh superior, who’s stripped them of their domestic identities and molded them into obedient machines, cultic militants. But by the end of Columbian filmmaker Alejandro Landes’ gorgeous third feature, the fabric of both their compliance and comradery will be unraveled in a 140-minute dissertation of unnerving, yet valid humanity.
The task at hand is simple, the “Messenger” (Wilson Salazar) informs his platoon: protect the cow and protect the girl. The cow, named Shakira, provides nutrient-rich milk for the near-savage warriors, and the girl (Julianne Nicholson), only referred to as “doctora,” is an American hostage. Details of her importance or their purpose are left entirely to audience speculation. But this is not so much a frustrating distancing of the viewer from the facts as it is an avenue for Landes, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Alexis Dos Santos, to explore the film’s central philosophy, which involves several -chy’s: hierarchy, autarchy, entelechy, eventual anarchy, and so forth.
But despite the comparatively minimalist nature of their mission, and the more-than-adequate amount of supplies at their disposal – these young people are very heavily armed – the situation is quickly botched. Shakira is accidentally killed, a byproduct of those aforementioned and irresponsibly used firearms, and one of the crew is left dead. Debate between the Monos (“monkeys” in Spanish) ensues as the group – consisting of noms de guerre like Rambo, Bigfoot, Swede, Dog, Smurf, Boom Boom, and Lady – reaches a crossroad: follow the path and face martial law or go rogue.
Of course, their procession towards minute revolution isn’t immediate, driven most sturdily by Bigfoot (Hannah Montana’s Moises Arias). But trepidations amongst the soldiers lead to a range and polarization of patriotism, with a group confident in Bigfoot’s rule, and a few, particularly Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), dissuaded by the whole affair. With that said, the squad’s allegiance to The Organization is severed completely once war drives them and the doctora down to the lower elevations of a flea-infested jungle.
It is here that Landes’ admiration of Goldberg’s Lord of the Flies really takes hold – the cultural foundation of the legion already relies on a Lost Boys-esque mantra, but at one point, we balk at the far-from-subtle nod of a pig’s head planted firmly on a stake. And beyond the classic novel, inspiration and influence from stunningly crafted films such as Apocalypse Now and The Revenant are also prevalent, as Monos transforms into a tropical game of cat and mouse, whose objectives and origin are, again, far from clear.
With that said, the spectacle of the group’s indistinct cause is alarming, to say the least. The film hardly ever lets you forget that these are children you’re observing, children who’ve been manipulated to a malicious extent. Devastating is their capacity to fulfill blind orders, and even more horrifying is their efficiency. Yes, there’s a purpose in excluding a specific political region or conflict (though any connection made to Columbia’s own RAFC would not be unjust), but the actuality of crushed individualism at such young ages is terribly upsetting, though not entirely new to the catalogue of the war genre.
But beyond vague politics and the occasional derivative theme, Monos soars as an intoxicating cinematic experience; it’s a film designed for the big screen, and one that wholly deserves to be watched on one. Breathtaking camerawork – courtesy of director of photography Jasper Wolf – sees the tranquil, silhouetted figures dance above the clouds at one point, and become engulfed in their gloominess the next, working hand in hand with the ups and downs of the narrative. Along with these children, the viewer is embedded in the elements, whose grip only grows stronger as composer Mica Levi’s electronic score crescendos the thrills. This encompassing experience is often too much to bear, though it’s far from unbearable.