Monos, Colombia’s selection for Oscar contention in the Best Foreign Language Film category this year, is one of the few films that could be most adequately described as barbaric without that word taking on a negative connotation. The third feature from director and co-writer Alejandro Landes, Monos is as bleak, confrontational, and emotionally brutalizing as filmmaking tends to get these days, but it’s overwhelmingly captivating in spite of the overall repulsive actions of the film’s young, feral characters. It’s a challenging film to sit through; one that asks a lot of the viewer and forces them to look beyond the frame for answers to difficult questions about human nature and the insidious power of social conditioning.
Somewhere in the mountains of an undisclosed South American country lives a band of teenage soldiers who’ve been conscripted into a mysterious paramilitary militia known only as The Organization. Their only adult contact with the outside world (outside of their radio) is a diminutive taskmaster (Wilson Salazar) who pops up every now and then to train his young soldiers, give them supplies and a new mission, and check in on an American engineer (Julianne Nicholson) that they’ve taken hostage. They all have code names – like Wolf, Rambo, Boom Boom, Bigfoot, Smurf, Lady, and so on – but psychologically they maintain a pack mentality. Their bonds are put to a test and altered forever when their immaturity accidentally causes them to bungle an important task. Loyalties are tested, some start quietly questioning their morals, and their hostage begins to sense that if she doesn’t try to escape soon, she’ll likely die.
Like many teenagers, they hang around drinking, haze each other (only in this case that means celebrating someone’s fifteenth birthday by whipping them mercilessly with an enormous belt), and hook up, but they’re also left largely to their own devices and can do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t interfere with their commitments to The Organization. The conditioning they’ve suffered to be brought to such points psychologically combined with their raging hormones, violent pathologies, and overall immaturity have created a powder keg of emotional conflicts that have been simmering long enough for them to explode in a desperate frenzy.
Landes (who co-writes with Alexis Dos Santos) says that Golding’s Lord of the Flies was a major inspiration for Monos, and while that’s clearly evident in the detailed breakdown of this miniature society, it’s also somehow bleaker and more hopeless than its spiritual source material. Monos, in Spanish, means “monkeys,” and that’s exactly what these young men and women self-identify as. Rather than evolving into adults, they’re devolving further into primal, baseless, instinctual behaviours that will likely get some or all of them killed. They are young people who think they have some sense of purpose, rank, and autonomy, but really they’ve just been conditioned into becoming blunt, mindless instruments without realizing it.
While there have been other films – both fictional and documentaries – about the nature of child soldiers, Monos might be the first one to actively try to parse the familial nature of such a close knit unit without much empathy or sympathy. There are a few moments where viewers will feel terrible for the young people on screen, most notably a visibly uncomfortable young woman trying to wash her bloodsoaked face beneath a waterfall, and another where the hostage asks a gun toting soldier about her hopes and dreams for the future, and the answer given is the sort of banal dream that only a teenager could come up with. It’s depressing to behold, but Landes has dropped the viewer into a world where all of the conditioning to lead these kids down a darker path has fully taken root, and none of the adults responsible can be reached for comment. The real villains are rarely ever seen. There are plenty of hows and whys that are never answered during Monos, but that makes the end result all the more viscerally terrifying (and, admittedly, somewhat irresponsible). It’s a harrowing war film where the viewer is never certain what war is being fought or why these teens are so indebted to the cause.
Around the halfway point, Monos moves from the severe, desolate mountains to dangerously lush jungles where pretty much anything can kill you out of nowhere, and the teens frequently find themselves getting separated from each other and their increasingly emboldened hostage. The existential and tangible dangers of these locations is all around them. For their part, the young cast (and Nicholson, who’s contributions can’t be understated) fully commit to their performances and surroundings. Each of the cast members sell their increasing madness, misplaced self-confidence, and desperation expertly, and none of these performances could’ve been easy to give. Monos finds Landes asking his actors to go as far to their breaking points as humanly possible, and even though the filmmakers only ask the audience to meet these characters halfway, it’s one hell of a commitment.
Every moment of Monos is like being locked into an increasingly intense nightmare, but that’s entirely the point. It’s anarchic and forceful, but never amoral in spite of Landes’ brave take-it-or-leave it approach. But while it’s certainly effective in keeping viewers off guard and out of sorts, I would also argue that anything Landes is trying to say about the plight of child soldiers is getting lost amid the craft. The pace and depressive nature of Monos is relentless, never offering a moment of relief after the first twenty minutes or so, meaning there’s no room for reflection or contemplation; only harsh truths that hit with the force of a hollow point round fired at close range. Monos is not a film for the squeamish or anyone unwilling to see something through to the bitterest of ends, but it is undeniably expert and memorable filmmaking.
Monos opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, Princess Theatre in Edmonton, and Plaza Theatre in Calgary on Friday, September 27, 2019. It expands to Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon and Rainbow Cinemas in Regina on October 4 and Vancity in Vancouver on October 18.
Check out the trailer for Monos: