Directed by: #AlejandroLandes
Written by: Alejandro Landes, #AlexisDosSantos
When the lights go down and Alejandro Landes’ Monos begins, the first images we see are children alone in the dark playing football, blindfolded. They appear to be a pack, somewhere far from civilisation. We soon discover that they are soldiers. Why are they here? Where did they come from? Who are they fighting for? Monos never answers these questions; it is part of its mystique, and streamlines the film into a stylish depiction of savagery and survival.
The group, known as ‘Monos’, are a youth branch of some kind of military movement called ‘The Occupation’. We get the sense that they are rebels, rather than state enforcers. Their youthful innocence pairs with an earnest conviction that suggests indoctrination into a cause they now ardently believe in. The unit is led by Wolf, the biggest and seemingly oldest of the group. He is joined by his partner Lady, scared youngsters Rambo and Smurf, violent Bigfoot, joker Dog, silent soldier Boom Boom, and the enigmatic, sometimes frightening Swede. Their existence is a mix of the playfulness and hormones of adolescence, and a sincere desire to do the bidding of their superiors, whatever the costs.
The plot, which is of less significance than the tone and mood of the film, sees the Monos put in charge of an on-loan cow and American hostage ‘Doctora’. Things soon go wrong for the young group of warriors, putting their unity to the test and bringing out the character flaws in them all. What Landes does well with his film is explore how a variety of characters cope with adversity and violence. Because he gives the adolescents no backstory, we view them all in an almost identical situation, allowing the differences in their personalities to come to the fore. Where Bigfoot looks for the opportunity to become a leader, Rambo looks for a way out and Smurf struggles to find his killer instinct.
There is a conviction and an authenticity to the young actors’ work here. Watching them feels not like being sold a performance but observing fully-formed people, each attempting to cope in their immediate, life-or-death scenario. This was perhaps aided by Landes’ 5-week-long boot-camp preparation period for the actors and the largely non-professional casting - notable exception is Moisés Arias who to a certain generation is Rico from Hannah Montana but here is fully-grown and rather more fond of guns. There is a unity to their group, and a playful camaraderie, but crucially the spectre of death has made them all slightly dispassionate, aware that at any moment the group could be broken.
The lack of background to each character and the wide-lens look at several characters at once has its benefits, for sure, but it does also leave forming a deeper emotional connection with any of the group slightly harder. Landes tells his story in an involving, compelling way but not always in a moving one. That said, the film’s final scenes, moving the kids out of isolation and closer to civilisation, hit harder and hint at the upsettingly cyclical nature of conflict.
Thematically, this is a rich and intriguing film, stripping war from any ideological basis and instead using it to explore the savagery and fear in us all that an extreme situation such as this can bring about. Landes seems fascinated by human bodies and their base tendencies towards sex and violence, accelerated at this young age by their parentless, conflict-based existence. Stylistically, however, is where the film really takes off. It is a sensory feast, with Jackie composer Mica Levi and DP Jasper Wolf working with Landes to make a film that feels at once grubby and otherworldly.
Monos is a film of savagery and beauty. It takes place perched on mountaintops or hurtling through forests and rivers. Through the right lens this setting could look idyllic, but here it is the sight of brutality and the near-total loss of innocence. Landes has crafted something with a clear vision, a film which is often stunning and frequently chilling.