In Monos, director Alejandro Landes builds a convincing world in which a group of rifle-wielding teenagers live and fight in the South American wilderness. Landes’ physical and metaphysical initiatives are fully realized in this exploration of stolen childhoods, with the gorgeously lush surroundings contrasting with the distinctly dystopian atmosphere. Only within the final act does Monos seem to drift from its established trajectory. But the ending is a minor blemish on an altogether impressive film.
In the very first scenes, it is clear that Landes intends to take the dystopian aura one step further by assigning cultish characteristics to the child soldiers’ institution. Apparently, under the orders of the unnamed ‘Organization’ for which they fight, members refer only to each other by their pseudonyms, such as Bigfoot, Wolf, Smurf, and Lady. Their birthnames are scrubbed from existence – an early sign of their evaporated childhoods. Moreover, relationships between the soldiers are allowed only after seeking permission from the ‘Messenger’, who gives the troops instructions and trains them rigorously. This is all compounded by a loud, industrial score by composer Mica Levi (Jackie) that would usually be attributed to a far-flung sci-fi setting.
The production team is so effective in constructing these specific flavors that the ensuing plot is instantly immersive. The qualities of living within guerrilla warfare are brought to the fore as the titular Monos’ base is attacked and the teenagers must move their camp into the jungle, all with a prisoner of war, Doctora (played skilfully by Julianne Nicholson) in their custody. But Doctora need not disobey her captors’ orders for the camp to be riddled with drama. The opening of a power vacuum leads to the brisk assumption of power by Bigfoot (Moisés Arias, still recognizable from his Hannah Montana days), and the return of the Messenger reasserts the features of the cult by asking the children to confess about others’ misdeeds during his absence.
Given the clear ‘animal kingdom’ environment which these characters inhabit, the themes of toxic masculinity and cyclical oppression are smartly incorporated into the story. Each narrative and directing choice are tracks on the ground which allow the Monos train to continuously travel. Perhaps the only exception is the ending. It is as if the train missed its desired stop and had to continue on, finally ending in a thematically sub-optimal location.
Despite marring its landing, Monos is far from spoiled. Landes’ skill in building a credible world, populated by equally compelling characters, is nothing short of praiseworthy. It is a film that is one with nature and fully utilizes its surroundings at every given opportunity. We certainly haven’t seen the last, nor hopefully the best, from this excellent team.