Borrowing from Lord of the Flies, Skins, and Apocalypse Now alike, Monos is an excellently plotted, virtuosically acted, and fascinatingly directed ensemble drama following a squadron of child soldiers. Producer Cristina Landes assists director Alejandro Landes to bring lurid visions of love, war, hatred, and desperation to the screen. (GPG: 5/5)
Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
Monos, named for its teenage commando squad’s codename, uses deceptive simplicity to deal with masterfully complex plots and themes. The events that lead to the death of the stolen milk cow Shakira, for instance, are both the natural conclusion of the bravado attitudes and wild partying we’ve seen these kids partaking in for the first half hour of the movie, and an act of freak chance. Likewise, the teenage soldiers in Monos are buffeted around the rainforest and what look like the Andes mountains by military actions that are bigger than any of them, while at the same time it’s clearly the pressure-cooker intensity of their internal dynamics propelling them to the breaking point of civilization.
I say this film is like Lord of the Flies not just because of the whole breaking point of civilization thing, but also because of the pre-breaking point society these kids have constructed for themselves in total wilderness. The squad lives alone on the top of a mountain, with only the mysterious Messenger who appears only briefly to check up on their training. The rest of the time they’re left to their own devices, cooking up their own little world together. This is where the vibes from Skins come in, because boy do these kids get wild. Even before they trip on mushrooms grown from the cow’s droppings, their main forms of entertainment seem to be lovingly beating the living shit out of each other and having bonfire bacchanals that feel like co-ed frat hazings.
One main thing I got from Monos was that Landes wants to emphasize the intense capacity for love and wild joy that lives in the human heart in the same way he wants to force us to look at the equal capacity for hatred that coexists with those better qualities. The human animal being feral cannot be boiled down to simply a good or a bad thing, even though the brutality that makes up the world of the Monos can often make it hard to remember the good parts of these kids’ lives. The Monos are simply here to live on the outer limits of what the human experience has to offer.
In counterpoint to the Monos is Doctora, a white engineer from America who is being held hostage by the army the Monos work for. She is stiff and formal where the Monos are wild, though she learns to act more like the Monos both through small acts of friendship and through the necessities of her survival. Again, the world of Monos is a complex one that does not allow for a reading so simplistic as Stockholm syndrome. After all, Doctora shows repeatedly that she has not given up hope of escape, while some of the Monos almost grow attached to her at times.
Since she is an American, I of course also read Doctora as a colonizer as well as a hostage and victim— Doctora struggles to speak Spanish because as an American she has never had to learn a second language. Further, the U.S.’s destabilization of various governments in South America are one reason why there are so many war-torn countries mirroring the conditions in Monos. It’s unclear for what purpose Doctora was captured, but if the militia the Monos belong to has reason to seek leverage over the United States I’m much more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt than I am the country that would rather strangle a nation’s economy than allow its politics to move toward the left.
Geopolitics aside, the internal dynamics of the group are shaken up by the death of Shakira and suicide of the Monos’s leader, Wolf, out of shame at allowing it to happen. Wolf’s partner, Lady, and former mid-level squad member Bigfoot then fall into leadership roles that lead the group to break down as they attempt to keep Doctora away from those who might rescue her. Bigfoot, played by Moises Arias, gains control of the group and begins to lead them over the edge. Anyone who lived through the Disney Channel golden age will remember Arias’s stint as Rico, the amorous beach kid constantly flirting with Miley Cyrus in Hannah Montana. With his performance as Bigfoot, Arias proves he can provoke gasps from an adult audience just as well as he can entertain a sitcom’s laugh track.
As the social dynamics of Monos break down under Bigfoot’s leadership, so too does the reality of the characters. The film’s unreal aesthetics are turned up to 11 as the plot escalates toward the ending and the characters descend farther into madness. While Landes plays with the edge of sanity for most of the film, this is where he really gives us doubt about what exactly we’re seeing. If you’re into Apocalypse Now, stick around for this part and you’ll get a conclusion worthy of Francis Ford himself.
Monos has some of the dopest cinematography and direction I’ve seen in a while; there were multiple times in the theater when I whispered to myself “holy shit” or “oh whoa.” If you’re looking for something visceral and real that accepts nothing less than the deepest bone marrow of emotional truth, look no farther.
Q: Does Monos pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?
It does indeed! Female characters like Doctora, Swede, Lady, and Rambo (examples of the Monos’s nicknames) make the film what it is. Bigfoot and Wolf couldn’t carry the film without these characters adding in their own arcs, and the female characters talk to each other all the time without men present or relevant to their conversations.
Top Photo: The Monos training.
Middle Photo: Doctora makes contact with her family.
Bottom Photo: Bigfoot plots his takeover of the group.
Photo Credit: Stela Cine