Review: Monos is a masterful, visceral film about child soldiers

Alejandro Landes’s psychologically rich film set in an unnamed Latin American country deserves to be seen in a theatre


MONOS (Alejandro Landes). 102 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (September 27). See listing. Rating: NNNN


The soldiers are hiding out in the jungles of an unnamed Latin American country, awaiting new instructions from the Organization. They have very powerful weapons, and they have been trained to use them. They have a hostage, an American woman they call Doctora. They are utterly convinced of the righteousness of their mission, though none of them can explain exactly what it is. The oldest of them can’t be more than 16.

Monos is a study of child soldiers that exists somewhere between psychological realism and art-movie ecstasy. Director Alejandro Landes, who wrote the film with Alexis Dos Santos, wants us to live in the heads of his protagonists, to occupy the transcendent space one finds when one has surrendered everything to a cause. 

Even their names are gone, replaced by call signs borrowed from pop culture: Bigfoot (Moisés Arias), Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), Wolf (Julian Giraldo), Swede (Laura Castrillón), Smurf (Deiby Rueda). We never find out whether they chose these, or if they were selected for them. It doesn’t matter. That’s who they are now. 

There are about eight or nine of them, far from both civilization and the military discipline they emulate. A fierce commander (Wilson Salazar) shows up every now and then to put them through exercises and check on their hostage, but for the most part they’re on their own, stewing in a dangerous mixture of parroted ideology and raging hormones. A bad thing happens pretty soon, followed by another bad thing, and then things just keep getting worse. 

In his breakout feature, Landes (Porfirio) builds a world and refuses to let us out: we are with them for the whole ride, only getting snippets of context from the occasional radio communication or television news blip. Jasper Wolf’s stunning cinematography and Mica Levi’s pounding score combine to create an overwhelming, almost tactile experience: the storms and mudslides feel hyper-realistic, as if we’re perceiving them through the characters’ intensified senses. 

Monos means “monkeys” in Spanish, and maybe that gives us a sense of how these kids are regarded by the adults who use them as little more than zealous muscle. But when Landes shows his protagonists blowing off steam with impromptu soccer games or kissing lessons, we’re reminded just how young they still are, and how ill-equipped they are, both emotionally and physically, for the jobs they’ve been given. 

Most of the actors are unknowns, though Arias, who plays Bigfoot, is a ringer he’s an American actor who’s much older than he looks, and he’s been in everything from Nacho Libre and The Kings Of Summer to Jean-Claude Van Johnson and the recent weeper Five Feet Apart. He’s very, very good in this, fashioning a tricky and largely reactive role into a magnetic, malevolent presence. 

And of course Julianne Nicholson is someone North American audiences will know from decades of film and TV work. She’s excellent here, creating a fully realized character in a handful of scenes with limited dialogue and being the closest thing to an external perspective that Monos offers. Doctora can relate to these kids, and even be charmed by them, but she’s never allowed to forget she’s their captive.

Landes leans a little too heavily on his reference points – Lord Of The Flies, Beau Travail and Apocalypse Now are all invoked rather than evoked over the course of the picture – but the shout-outs constitute just a couple of rough notes in an otherwise confident, even masterful work.

Please try to see this in a theatre.

@normwilner

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