A group of child soldiers hold an American hostage on a remote mountaintop
Dir: Alejandro Landes. Colombia/Argentina/Netherlands/Germany/Sweden/Uruguay. 2019. 102mins
A battle for survival takes many forms in Monos, a tense tale of child soldiers, their hostage and the dangerous forces that imperil them both. With clear references to Lord Of The Flies, this meditative thriller from director Alejandro Landes (Porfirio) pushes into familiar terrain but seeks its own path, shifting our sympathies and broadening its perspective so that we see many of these characters as both victims and villains.
Monos never settles into one rhythm, keeping audiences on edge
Monos screens at Sundance and then Berlin, its theatrical prospects boosted by the presence of Julianne Nicholson and Moisés Arias among the cast. The film’s action-thriller trappings may make it attractive to art-house theatres, and the boldness of its design could bring attention to an under-the-radar offering.
Set atop an unspecified mountain range, Monos introduces us to “The Organisation”, a group of teenage boys and girls who sport machine guns and hold Doctora (Nicholson) hostage; they have been instructed to keep alive. But after a calamitous event and an ensuing tragedy, the soldiers, led by Bigfoot (Arias), make their way to the nearby jungle, where Doctora plots her escape.
The child soldiers all go by blunt monikers such as Bigfoot, Wolf, Dog and Lady, and they initially seem indistinguishable from one another, each of them playing war hero, although it’s readily apparent that they don’t have the experience or maturity to handle the responsibilities (and massive firearms) bestowed upon them.
But soon, Landes and cowriter Alexis Dos Santos begin to reveal the interpersonal dynamics within The Organisation, especially after Bigfoot tries to assert his authority over his fellow soldiers. Arias (The Stanford Prison Experiment, The Kings Of Summer) channels the character’s bratty demeanour and casual cruelty, illustrating how susceptible people are to abuse their position once they get that first taste of power.
Jasper Wolf’s cinematography aims for a dreamlike quality, draping the soldiers in translucent fog as they stomp through their lush mountain paradise. Later in the film, the sweat and buzz of the jungle proves to be a striking juxtaposition, and Oscar-nominated composer Mica Levi’s percussive score serves as both anxiety-inducer and a sonic reframing of what we’re watching. Landes wants us to feel his characters’ desperation but there’s also an element of surrealism to the whole affair, the film constantly calling attention to the absurdity of these children who are trying to mimic the bloodthirsty actions of adults.
That desperation is conveyed most profoundly in Nicholson’s spare, sometimes feral performance. The film reveals little of Doctora’s background — or how she came to be kidnapped — and the actress uses that mystery to map out a character who seems helpless but ends up surprising us. Landes’ choice of an attractive, white American star to portray Doctora feels intriguingly calculated, playing into xenophobic stereotypes that might cast The Organisation as “evil terrorists” and Nicholson’s character as the meek innocent. Monos sets up those expectations in order to subtly interrogate them — particularly once we see how the soldiers face their own forms of oppression from their superiors and a hostile outside world.
Landes seeks a child’s-eye perspective on these events, filtering The Organisation’s experiences through hormones and adolescent insecurity. Love scenes are filmed with an intimate immediacy, while moments of downtime remind us how young and awkward these wannabe warriors are. But Monos never settles into one rhythm, keeping audiences on edge by introducing a bravura action sequence out of nowhere, or bringing a character from the margins to the foreground and suddenly instilling him with crucial narrative importance.
That constant sense of surprise chases away the easy moralising that could have infected this story. Monos asks the viewer to consider the circumstances of everyone on screen — and also how the characters’ different social and economic backgrounds have nonetheless brought them together in this life-or-death scenario. This is a gripping, sometimes hypnotising film in which notions of good and evil are less clear-cut than the urgent desire to stay alive.
Production company: Stela Cine
US sales: UTA Independent Film Group, ChasinY@unitedtalent.com
International sales: Le Pacte, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Alejandro Landes & Fernando Epstein, Santiago Zapata, Cristina Landes
Screenplay: Alejandro Landes & Alexis Dos Santos, story by Alejandro Landes
Production design: Daniela Schneider
Editing: Yorgos Mavropsaridis, Ted Guard, Santiago Otheguy
Cinematography: Jasper Wolf
Music: Mica Levi
Main cast: Julianne Nicholson, Moisés Arias, Sofia Buenaventura, Julián Giraldo, Karen Quintero