Deeply examining the results of a war machine ready to turn children into soldiers, Alejandro Landes’s latest film, Monos, is a searing look at what happens in a world surrounded by toxic masculinity, war, and a significant lack of emotional support. Easily comparable to an arthouse version of First Blood, Landes brings audiences into the fold of a conflict raging throughout the world, and the impact it has on future generations thrust into its grip. Bolstered by Mica Levi’s dissonant, haunting score that moves between the foreground and the background of child soldiers forced to confront the realities of war, Monos is one of the most breathtaking sensory experiences one can have this year.
Shot in Columbia, Monos takes place in a mountainous region in Latin America following a group of teenage commandos, known as the Monos, as they pass the time away looking after a hostage and a milk cow. Much of the narrative is put on the backburner in lieu of an immersive experience that focuses on character more than action. Each teenager feels distinct, and they find themselves individually tested by situations and scenarios that play out throughout their time with each other. When things finally escalate and the film becomes a high-risk game of cat-and-mouse, Landes’ amplifies that immersion for a deeper look inside the mind of a child soldier. By doing this, Monos does often take a huge hit in its pacing, as events tend to happen and effects are what cater to the film’s character explorations.
Monos is one of those movies where everything feels very methodical in how emotional appeal is executed, but it oddly feels flat when the plot begins picking up pace. The action is well-shot (only surprising because the film often lingers, as opposed to capturing a frenetic pace) by Jasper Wolf, who brings a raw intensity to every chase and fight. Where his cinematography shines most is in its capturing of the Columbian landscape, which when juxtaposed with Mica Levi’s (who has already established herself with scores for Jackie and Under the Skin) eerily dissonant score brings Wolf’s images to a frightening new light. They don’t always feel like they mesh perfectly together, but when they do it’s like fireworks going off in the pitch black darkness. Every mountain top and jungle canvas is provided with just the right amount of ethereal beauty and grimy ruggedness in order to see both the innocence and the wild nature of the children at Monos‘ heart.
Ultimately, that is what the film centers itself around: an exploration of youth at war. Monos takes a look at the absence of parents, and how the military-substitute these kids have has shaped their behaviour to others. There’s a juvenile nature that never leaves the teen soldiers as they wrestle with failures and successes, pleading for acknowledgement or hiding from embarrassment when neither of those things are available as an adult. There’s also a very concrete look at how war and toxic masculinity go hand-in-hand when used as teaching tools to children. The way each one behaves has a common link: a lack of sensitivity in situations that often demand it. All of this is brought to life by actors who bring just the right amount of innocence to roles that feel primed to strip them down and still demand a hardened soldier.
There is also much to be said about Julianne Nicholson’s performance as the doctor taken hostage by this guerilla outfit of children. Her character teeters between motherly figure (the only one a lot of these soldiers know) and prisoner of war, providing Nicholson with one of the hardest tasks as she juggles vulnerability even in the most torturous situations. Her scenes showcase a powerhouse performance that leaves Monos with an emotional sensitivity that is more palpable than many other films on war.
Monos really is a juggernaut in terms of how it gets into the headspace of its subject matter, providing a fully nuanced portrait of youth at war. There is a brutality that it doesn’t shy away from while still trying to convey a sympathy for the characters in play. War itself is the only target of the film, in particular all the destructive effects it has on its participants. While it definitely slogs a bit in between bigger moments, the movie never feels boring; Levi and Wolf’s score and cinematography, respectively, elevate Monos to a higher-caliber film even with its occasional pacing issues. A complete and succinct exploration of child soldiers done with an arthouse flair, Monos stand out from the rest of the war films out today.