Alejandro Landes’ tense, probing portrait of child soldiers keeps its messages as muddy as its setting.
The second scene of Alejandro Landes’ Monos begs for comparison to Beau Travail, as a regiment of guerilla teen and pre-teen soldiers go through a series of bracingly physical military exercises. They start with high knees as their commander – known enigmatically as Messenger – barks at them before they grapple with their bare skin, calling directly to mind the charged embraces of Claire Denis’ film.
But while Landes’ film establishes a sturdy foundation by evoking these quotidian rhythms and the tedious discipline that comes with being stationed, its total ambitions are far less coherent: ultimately muddling its engaging, dryly absurd psychological observations in overwrought Heart of Darkness transformations and jags of brutal violence.
Monos, or monkeys as it translates to English, is the group’s callsign as they’re lying in wait on a muddy mountaintop for their next orders. Their current mission is clear: watch their prisoner of war – an American engineer who they refer to as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) and intermittently film with the day’s newspaper to show her imprisonment to the world. They may be born into the fire of the militia or they may have been drawn to it.
Evocative of Nocturama, Landes and co-writer Alexis Dos Santos keep their nature firmly apolitical even as they point to violence outside this insular enclave. At the end of the day, they’re teens and pre-teens experimenting with each other, wrestling and eating manure-caked mushrooms for trips that take them away from their daily tedium.
Innocence lost is a pervasive theme, but this isn’t a Beasts of No Nation morality tale. Rather, consider their situation more of the aftermath of an unseen folie à deux a la Dogtooth as this motley crew whose names range from Bigfoot (A ferociously egotistical Moises Arias) to Smurf (Deiby Rueda) practice tribal rituals like giving each other birthday lashes with a belt to firing a machine gun maniacally in a windmill shape. They’re battling hormones, insecurity, and their own burgeoning egos, but they’re devoted to the cause, whatever that may be.
All the while, sui generis composer Mica Levi provides a thrumming soundtrack that repeatedly looms with whistling, rolling tympanies, and what one imagines a UFO’s alarm would sound like. These accompaniments alternately lend a phantasmagoric theatricality and pulsing sensuality to the film, but too often they feel like they’re leading the film in its intended direction rather than the other way round.
DP Jasper Wolf’s fog-ridden expansive photography certainly adds to that feeling as Monos’ sense of reality is at first satisfyingly hazy, yoking questions of whether it’s all a surreal lark. The only thing clear is that the Organization seems to be fully orchestrating every move they make, even as their goals are obtuse and the Organization’s method of delivering orders brings more questions than answers – especially when they rely on strange, harshly comedic codes in English to speak to the Doctora. A single elaborate sequence in a subterranean barracks after an attack seems to confirm some level of scope to their forces but even that scene feels like an outlier; connective tissue between the mountain top setting and verdant jungle.
It’s not just the extraneous details that don’t add up. Monos moves in a similarly puzzling way, jutting forward based on impulsive actions more than an overriding plot. The one central trigger is an accident involving Shakira, a cow who the Organization tasks the group with taking care of without explanation.
Monos moves in a similarly puzzling way, jutting forward based on impulsive actions more than an overriding plot.
That impetuous spirit initially feels right as it leaves room for the filmmakers to not only indulge in oneiric imagery (like the aforementioned shrooms adventure) but also cleverly play with the gap between how these adolescents feel they need to act and their natural state of being. The best scenes, in turn, find a way to outline this strict personal, militaristic code while also leaving plenty of doubt how this band of misfits could ever successfully fight some kind of enemy force.
There are errant scenes that work brilliantly, like a gorgeous party sequence shot with an apocalyptic glow and an idyll tangent where one of the boys from Monos is taken in by a local, but Monos is a film of too many ideas, a sword of a problem as the film can manage to feel both magisterial and ambitious without having any real thematic unification.
That’s never a bigger problem than the final reel, which collides a collective rivalry with Bigfoot, and a full descent into a feral way of life for the different members of Monos to fully cement the film’s journey towards genre inclinations. It’s way too clean though, trying to cleanse the complications of its own premise out with bloodshed and a pregnant final shot that feels like a bid for arthouse vagueness instead of any kind of necessary resolution.
Monos comes to limited release in NY/LA September 13, and Chicago September 20.
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