We’ve had tough and gritty teen movies before, but very few can match the darkness at the heart of Monos, a film that supplies teen drama and guerrilla warfare in equal measure, before further sinking into a world of violent betrayal, brutal drownings, and eating mushrooms covered in cow shit. Alejandro Landes’s film is an extraordinarily accomplished entrance onto the cinematic world stage, inviting obvious categorisations and comparisons, but refusing to be boxed in by any of them. A sensory experience that also tells a compelling, ensemble-led story, Monos grips tightly from the opening moments, very rarely letting go.
Set in an unspecified South American country in the midst of a civil war, Monos follows an isolated troop of teen soldiers (and their American hostage), ostensibly fighting for mysterious rebel force ‘The Organisation’. They spend their days doing bizarre training and bonding rituals, like blindfolded games of football or beating one another with a belt. At the outset, there’s a semblance of order, but after the unit loses its squad leader and gets moved out of their mountaintop barracks into the jungle, the inevitable chaos sets in. This collapse, and the varied psychological breakdowns that go with it, is expertly paced, its progression always feeling natural without ever lingering in one state for too long.
No one character ends up emerging as the lead, though the stories of self-appointed leader Bigfoot (Moises Arias), the unnamed captive aid worker (Julianne Nicholson), and androgynous rebel Rambo (identified as male in the film, but played by female actor Sofia Buenaventura) do take prominence. This is rarely at the expense of the others though, and every member of the platoon is done justice. Landes teases great, naturalistic performances from his young cast, who revel in the moral, sexual, and gender freedoms provided to them by their distance from society.
Given all the hypnotic chaos of the story and the setting, it’s remarkable just how much control Landes keeps throughout Monos. His script, co-written with Alexis Dos Santos, creates a world that’s just a half-step out of touch with ours, dream-logic occasionally taking charge as the soldiers tumble further into madness. Mesmerising visuals squeeze every last drop of beauty and threat out of the environments, characters, and tools of violence, and the training sequences recall the stunning physicality of Beau Travail. A montage of the soldiers degenerating into carjacking bandits is hugely striking, made indelible by full-body painted camouflages that turn the group into wide-eyed shadows.
It’s very immersive, completed by a brilliant soundscape that really places you at the heart of the hills and jungles that Monos calls home. Landes’s real masterstroke, through, is in calling in Mica Levi to provide the music. Hers is, by leaps and bounds, the best film score of the year, elevating an already excellent film to true greatness. At times the tracks roll in like thunder, at others they sneak up on you, mingling with the sounds of nature and war until they’re ready to knock reality slightly askew. It’s a sublime piece of work that Landes utilises skilfully – it could easily overpower a lesser film.
A film with this many technical achievements up its sleeve could quite easily content itself with simply wallowing in the images and sounds it has crafted without really going anywhere, but Monos is as driven as it is immersive. The story is propulsive, the set-pieces exciting and affecting, and when the ending arrives, it’s an immensely satisfying mix of closure and tense ambiguity. Though comparisons to Apocalypse Now and Lord of the Flies are inevitable – and, admittedly, warranted – Monos is its own beast, savage and majestic.