My Verdict | ★★★★☆
There’s no ‘monkey-business’ in Alejandro Landes’ guerrilla thriller Monos (translated from Spanish as ‘monkeys’). Despite the visual beauty of its cinematography, the vigour of its cast and Mica Levi’s eerily mesmerising score, everything about Monos is jarring. As it should be- this is a haunting depiction of the perversity of war on those most vulnerable.
Landes strips his film of any history and ideology that might contextualise it. Much like William Goldings’ Lord of the Flies (Landes gives a really ‘on-the-snout’ reference to this infamous novel) the director-writer drops you into the Colombian mountains without exposition. Monos focuses on a small band of unnamed adolescent fighters (they are known only by their nicknames- ‘Rambo’, ‘Bigfoot’, ‘Lady’ and so on) who are enrolled by the ‘Organisation’ to fight for their cause. Garrisoned in a remote, dilapidated mountain outpost, the fighters are tasked by their diminutive, yet tough, commander (Wilson Salazar) to guard a prisoner of war (Julianne Nicholson) and a milk cow. Sharp military discipline might bring camaraderie and order to the young unit, but it doesn’t stop burgeoning sexuality and adolescent insecurity from causing rifts. Inevitably, something goes wrong.
Landes creates a stifling atmosphere that overpowers the film’s striking settings- those rocky outcrops above seas of cloud and deep jungle crevasses. It’s not just the disorientating close-ups (timing the on-the-spot-running faces and bodies of the teenagers to Levi’s deep rhythmical score) nor the sweltering claustrophobia of the lush jungle (where the insect buzzing is an unbearable aural texture). It is far more unsettling to watch how these children lose any semblance of care or conscience. How confusion about their shifting relationships with each other leads slowly, but surely, to violent self-survival. Their lives become consumed by a cause that is unclear and unreal. The bacchanalian revels of the group turn to brutally efficient, even balletic, manoeuvres in the deep jungle. Landes has most of these children swallowed- both cinematographically and morally- by darkness.
The director-writer is gifted with a committed young cast that throw themselves into both actual and ethical quagmires. As with The Lord of the Flies, you soon forget these are only children beneath the matted hair, muddy (sometimes bloody) splashes, grim fatigues and automatic weaponry. Held by Landes’ often personalising yet isolating frame, their distinct faces and attitudes (initially so energised, sensual and mischievous) become disturbing. They are a powerfully troubling ensemble that have any moments of tenderness and humour driven out of them.
Is there a point behind this film that is as hypnotic as it is unsettling? Is the license with its artistic style doing a disservice to the real-life horrors experienced by teenage and child soldiers in conflict zones today? In my opinion, Landes is triumphant in reinforcing the disposability of youth to the pointless cycle of violence in war. These children remain as traumatised and anonymised as when they began- mere pawns given over to the orgies of conflict. It might not always have the visceral impact of Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog or Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, but Monos does linger with you long afterwards.