Filled with sensory explosiveness, Monos is an incredibly evocative breakthrough for filmmaker Alejandro Landes. Set in the wilderness and mountains in Latin America, the film follows a small militia of young adults tasked with watching over an American hostage and carrying out the orders of a transient general known as the Messenger. Landes crafts a narrative indebted to the likes of Lord of the Flies and Apocalypse Now in a package that is almost neo-Malickian, both classically familiar and freshly tense.
Landes begins the film with wells of silence punctuated by youthful ritual, drawing us first into a meditative state before violence begins to steadily unravel this increasingly combative troupe. With eight young soldiers total, this band dubbed the Monos all name themselves with rudimentary and highly suggestive monikers – Dog, Rambo, Smurf. It’s a deceptively sparse setup that complicates as its group dynamics reveal themselves, with Landes molding a terrifyingly layered soundscape and vicious visual identity that turns the film into a dark night of the soul unlike anything currently in theatres.
The freedom of the foggy remote location first allows the spirit of youth to take hold, with Lady and Wolf falling in love and first responsibility coming in the form of a cow placed in the militia’s care. But youthful carelessness also naturally marks their union, stirring the first seeds of discord when the de facto leader Bigfoot convinces them all to join a lie rather than face the consequences of their actions. This immediately sets into action an unraveling of the unit that takes them through war zones and jungle, all while still keeping the American doctor as their prisoner.
Led by Moisés Arias as Bigfoot and Julianne Nicholson as the captive doctor, Landes delivers a captivating thriller that, despite his obvious influences, unfolds unexpectedly and with increasing threat. As the group’s dynamics shift, so does the intensity with which we follow them, as if Landes has staged separate vignettes of varying degrees of violence and contemplative visual beauty. This episodic nature frustratingly dulls some of its payoff even in its relatively short runtime, but Monos still burns with a formal confidence embedded with sparks of audacity. It’s tonally, stylistically, and ideologically sprawling despite its brevity.
Monos’ most impressive work, however, comes from its often breathtaking craft. Cinematographer Jasper Wolf has an even more staggering arrival here than the director himself, finding a range of textures and palettes to match the tempestuous nature of his subjects’ interior lives. He expresses what they cannot, and perhaps some of what Landes is limited from exploring in the script (which he co-wrote with Alexis Dos Santos). Mika Levi, as with Jackie and Under the Skin, lends the film a score that is submersive and terrifying, complementing the film’s themes with punishing force. There is a relentless sense of danger in the film’s composition that never lets up, even if Landes’ grasp of its psychological point of view muddies. Regardless, it’s a film that can be felt deeply as it is experienced, even if it leaves you with less on your mind than you might hope.