You’d hardly find more picturesque opening scenes than the ones which set the stage for “Monos,” the latest feature from Colombian director Alejandro Landes. A kaleidoscopic sky forms the backdrop, high above the clouds as a group of young people have made a makeshift family on a remote mountainside in Latin America. Recalling “Lord of the Flies”, they seem to have been left to their own devices. But the truth behind this idyllic setting proves to be far more menacing, as “Monos” wields a survivalist tale with savage beauty.
Indeed, it’s not long before audiences learn that these youth are gun-toting soldiers of a guerilla army. And though they may appear wild and free, their lives are controlled with an iron fist by a watchful commander, including a strict code of conduct that even governs their romantic relationships. But as they prepare to face an undisclosed enemy and maintain the capture of an American hostage, their bonds begin to break under the pressure of a harsh environment and their natural human impulses.
There’s an underlying anti-war statement to be found in “Monos”, but Landes deftly avoids easy platitudes. Indeed, Landes’ approach is almost experimental, reflecting the unpredictability of nature. As he maintains a purposeful mystery about the characters’ motivations behind the war and the hostage situation, the script hones in on primal emotions which rise to the surface in response to betrayal, jealousy and fear.
The result is a film that always feels spontaneous and unpredictable. And with the aid of its stunning visual and aural aesthetics, it keeps you transfixed. From the vivid colors and dynamic vantage points of the cinematography, to Micah Levi’s uniquely unsettling score, “Monos” delivers a rich sensory experience. Furthermore, the ensemble of young actors adeptly conveys the conflicted mentality of child soldiers. There’s a playful energy to their nighttime frivolities, while their trigger-happy determination to fight for the cause suggests deeply rooted brainwashing.
But it is Julianne Nicholson who is most impressive in her role as the captive “Doctora.” Her perilous journey truly keeps you on the edge of your feet. As she confronts the dangers of her captors and the harsh environment, she gets to showcase a compelling physicality rarely seen in her typical supporting character work.
As the plot unfolds and becomes increasingly violent, “Monos” touches on essential truths about human psychology. Despite our desire to feel like we belong to a group, self-preservation is innate. And that survival instinct can bring out the best and worst within us.