Director: Alejandro Landes
Writers: Alejandro Landes, Alexis dos Santos
Cast: Sofia Buenaventura, Moises Arias, Julianne Nicholson, Laura Castrillón, Karen Quintero, Julian Giraldo
Producers: Fernando Epstein, Alejandro Landes, Cristina Landes, Santiago A. Zapata
Music: Mica Levi
Cinematography: Jasper Wolf
Editors: Ted Guard, Yorgos Mavropsaridis, Santiago Otheguy
Cert: 15 TBC
Running time: 102mins
What’s the story: In the South American mountains, a squad of child soldiers kill time while holding an American engineer hostage.
What’s the verdict: A journey into the wild hearts of child soldiers, Alejandro Landes’ third feature in twelve years is riveting, frustrating, hallucinogenic and astonishing.
Conceived as a loose remake of Lord of the Flies, this also echoes Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, plus the documentary style of Ken Loach or Alan Clarke (Landes’ first film, Cocalero, was itself a documentary).
Those who know their Spanish know ‘monos’ is a difficult word to pin down. Amongst other definitions, it could mean monkeys, male toy figurines or cute things. At one time or another, all three describe the teenagers living in the mountains high above an unnamed South American country.
As part of “The Organisation” their mission is to guard a hostage, an American engineer known only as Doctora (Nicholson). The squad is also entrusted with a cow from a local village that they can use for milk, but are warned by a stern commander cannot be harmed.
Landes and co-writer dos Santos give the first half of the movie over to the teens hanging out in the desolate, damp mountain top. They fire their guns, braid Doctora’s hair, trip on mushrooms. They all go by noms de guerre.
Violence is always close by. A celebration when Lady (Quintero) and Wolf (Giraldo) marry becomes an uneasy firelit bacchanal. Birthday bumps take the form of a belt-whipping in which everyone has a turn.
A hive mind begins to form and going against consensus carries a suggestion of reprisals. Even when a tragic accident befalls the group.
Patience is required for this first half. Landes embeds the audience with the young soldiers and records the power structures slowly beginning to form. After a midway attack on their base by government forces, the action relocates to the jungle and the pace quickens. Dominant personalities take charge, led by Arias’ formidable Bigfoot.
And as the feverish jungle atmosphere (magnificently captured by cinematographer Jasper Wolf) replaces the stark mountain chilliness, the call of the truly wild seduces the group. Bar the Doctora and the placid, ironically named Rambo (Buenaventura), which marks them as trouble.
Audacious and exhilarating yet tempered by Landes and dos Santos’ anger at the true events that inspired their movie, Monos is another example of the advantages of location shooting. Monos grounds its surreal tale by throwing the cast deep into the South American landscape, caking them in mud, soaking them in river water and hurling them into rapids.
The tragedy of these kids’ corruption is caught in smaller moments. During a shelling, Swede (Olivia Cooke-alike Castrillón) confides in Doctora that her dream was to be a TV dancer. When Swede and others trip on mushrooms Mica Levi’s typically brilliant score underlines their innocence.
Some audiences won’t make it past the first half. Those that stay the course will emerge dazed but dazzled by what Landes and co. have accomplished.