Directed and co-written by Alejandro Landes, Monos feels like it exists outside of time and place, with a remote location up in the mountains and no trace of civilisation to be seen for the entire length of its running time. It follows a group of child soldiers under orders from a paramilitary group only referred to as “The Organisation” to guard an American prisoner of war (Julianne Nicholson as Doctora). At the same time, they’re tasked with looking after a milk cow called Shakira being lent to them by a nearby village — a strange way to start, to say the least. Of course, things go wrong. A member of the team commits suicide, and the team eventually comes down from the mountain, and descends into the jungle. As it moves to this location, Monos becomes increasingly surrealistic and nightmarish, as the teenagers’ repressed urges and violent upbringing turns them into beasts.
At this point, the film really begins to resemble Lord of the Flies, as instincts and tribalism takes over and order is discarded. Ond member, named Bigfoot (Moisés Arias), pronounces dominion over the Monos and slowly begins strong-arming them into following him. If there was any doubt over whether or not the comparison to William Golding’s novel is apt, the film more or less confirms it as an image of a pig’s head on a stick signals the moment when the group becomes truly damaged beyond repair.
“You’re my children”, they’re told at the opening; the promise of family to these angry, wayward teenagers acting as a tool for manipulation rather than true brotherhood or camaraderie. But it works, since many were thrown out of their homes or alienated from their birth parents, with one member, called Dog (Paul Cubides), telling a story of how they faced discrimination from their father. Names like “Wolf” and “Bigfoot” suggest that being in the Monos is a kind of power fantasy for the teens, a fantasy which is slowly deconstructed as madness takes hold. It slowly becomes a hallucinatory, forceful experience, propulsive and disturbing in equal measure. The Monos are not an organised military unit; they’re a group of angry, idiot teenagers with rifles, and the film never loses sight of this even as the Monos begin to act more and more ruthless.
Jaspar Wolf’s sharp, feverish camerawork takes inspiration from Roger Deakins’ work on Sicario. In addition, the film’s exploration of alienation, toxic masculinity and the oppressiveness of the military feels right out of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, complete with homoerotic subtext via the character of Rambo — who is played by the actress Sofia Buenaventura but seemingly gendered as male in the film, which complicates a love triangle with Wolf (Julián Giraldo) and Lady (Karen Quintero) in a fascinating way. Rambo is a fully realised character, but enough is obscured about them that their relationships with the others could be read completely differently depending on who is viewing it. If the cinematography already evokes tension then Mica Levi’s abrasive, exhilarating score amplifies it tenfold, winding together refrains of militaristic whistles and drums with tense strings and droning synths. Her thundering soundtrack towers over proceedings and immerses the audience in the wayward characters’ state of mind. Generally, the mood and the film’s formal elements are its greatest strength, as Wolf and Levi’s work tells more about the characters than the writing does. Some characters get forgotten in the frenzy of violence and madness in Monos’ later chapters, but not so much so that it harms the film. Nicholson in particular does fantastic work as “Doctora,” as she becomes increasingly desperate in her attempts to escape, and the directors show what she’s willing to shed to do so. Buenaventura provides an excellent contrasting performance as Rambo, a character trying to hold onto their humanity as they try and find a way out of the group.
Perhaps the most purely propulsive and exciting film to come out of this year’s Berlinale, Monos is a powerhouse of mood and aesthetic, weaponising every element of the form in service of a nightmarish descent into hell in the vein of Lord of the Flies or Heart of Darkness.
Kambole Campbell (@kambolecampbell) is a London-based freelance film critic. He contributes regularly at Birth.Movies.Death, Little White Lies and Crack Magazine, and has had work featured at The Guardian. Kambole is also the Features Editor at One Room With a View.