THE STORY – Belonging to a rebel group called “the Organization,” a ragtag band of child soldiers, brandishing guns and war names like Rambo, Wolf, Lady, and Bigfoot, occupies a derelict ruin atop a remote mountain where they train themselves, watch over a “conscripted” milk cow, and hold hostage a kidnapped American engineer, Doctora (Julianne Nicholson). But after an attack forces them to abandon their base, playtime is over for the motley young crew.
THE CAST – Julianne Nicholson, Moisés Arias, Sofia Buenaventura, Deiby Rueda, Karen Quintero & Laura Castrillón
THE TEAM – Alejandro Landes (Director/Writer) & Alexis Dos Santos (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 102 Minutes
By Will Mavity
Every now and then we end up with those quintessential “style over substance” movies where the style is so obscenely good, that it can compensate for a thin script. “Monos” is the crown prince of such examples, boasting astounding direction, clever cutting, immersive sound design, and stunning cinematography to create a surreal coming of age adventure film that is one part “Apocalypse Now” and two parts “Lord of the Flies.”
Set in war-torn Colombia, Monos follows a crew of young teenage soldiers who train, fight, and battle hormones and conflicting ambitions in the wilderness. A mounting death toll and the lingering presence of a kidnapped American doctor (Julianne Nicholson) heightens tensions until there is no escape from the violence, both external and internal.
Director Alejandro Landes combines dynamic camera work with Mica Levi’s hypnotic score to create a downright surreal coming of age experience. The various teen characters, with a few exceptions, aren’t given the chance to establish much in the way of individual identity, but the naturalistic way Landes captures their interactions presents an almost anthropological study on the toxic masculinity at play and illustrates a stark contrast between the moments where the film captures the hormonal teens flirting and arguing with one another and the moments where they descend into violence without much consideration. Although we are kept at a distance from these characters throughout, it is still fascinating to explore the fluid dynamics of power that fluctuate between them as they descend deeper and deeper into savagery. More importantly, the talented cast of young child stars offers raw and natural performances across the board, capturing fear, anger and teenage joy with equal aplomb. Nicholson offers a very physical performance, conjuring an almost subhuman character herself. These actors make the characters come to life.
As a result, by the time the film reaches its climax (complete with some true jaw-dropping camera work), you are on the edge of your seat. The sound design is some of the most evocative of the past few years, weaving the sounds of gunfire and screams into a surreal score, and demonstrating the way sound warps and bends depending on its environment (a third act river setpiece is particularly impressive to listen to). Meanwhile, the cinematography captures the stunning mountain ranges and cloudy vistas of Colombia, as well as the sweltering hot jungles of its lower areas. And the editing crucially knits all of these aspects together to an almost dreamlike effect.
“Monos,” is one of the most haunting films of the year. Like “Apocalypse Now” and great works of literature, it leaves the viewer parsing through it over and over, finding more to analyze. It is at once a coming-of-age film, a war film, and an anti-war film. It is a study on colonialism and sexuality and masculinity. It is all of those things and more. And at the same time, it is also a ruthlessly entertaining action film. As such, even if the characters are not outwardly all developed, the writing and direction offer more than enough to compensate. And for pure action junkies, the third act chase is action filmmaking on par with the work in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It is unlikely that many films this year will equal its technical mastery or hypnotic impact, and someone needs to hand director Alejandro Landes a big budget for his next project as soon as possible.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Impeccable craftsmanship. Riveting and well-executed action sequences. Fascinating philosophical questions that keep us intellectually engaged.
THE BAD – The script is a bit thin resulting in a lack of characterization.