The trailer for Monos is accompanied by a quote describing it as “at the scale of Apocalypse Now.” Like the 1979 anti-war movie, Monos feels huge, dominating, grandiose, towering above its audience with both spectacular vistas and haunting close-ups. And just as Captain Willard’s journey down the Nung river symbolized his descent into insanity, Monos moves from a cloudy, isolated Colombian mountain top to the dense jungle beneath as a clan of child soldiers sink deeper into crazed malice and psychedelic mania, thanks to a few magic mushrooms.
Known by animalistic nicknames like Bigfoot, Wolf and Rambo, this adolescent group of feral commandos are already caught in the thicket of war by the time we meet them. Immune to the sound of gunfire, they carelessly scatter bullets into the horizon with automatic weapons. At night, they dance around bonfires while waving their machine guns. Under the strict tutelage of their battle-scarred captain Mensajero (Wilson Salazar), they watch over their American hostage, known only as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson), forcing her to make harrowing proof-of-life videos. It’s unclear what war they’re fighting in and why—we’re plunged right into their muddy boots, as confused about our opaque surroundings as they are.
Don’t expect a standard three-act narrative in Monos; there’s no goal for any of the characters other than survival. There’s a painful unpredictability in its structure, too, moving us from place to place with a disorienting rhythm. Never is there a sense of an ending in sight, nor anything to ground us in time. We’re strapped in to the present moment, unable to predict the next guerilla attack, shroom trip or execution. The spurts of violence are shocking and upsetting, intense in how unflinchingly they are shown and how suddenly they occur. Only one thing is certain in Monos: as time passes, Lord of the Flies becomes a more appropriate comparison.
Tension is the name of the game for writer/director Alejandro Landes, who heightens the hypnotic atmosphere with sweeping camera movements and vibrant colors—the teal shade of the mists around the opening summit base, for example, is at once beautiful and mesmerizing. Cinematographer Jasper Wolf captures the stunning imagery of rural Colombia in patient, gliding wide shots, but he’s also unafraid to explore the fracturing psyches of the characters through expressive visuals—a hallucinatory dream is displayed with a honey-colored glow, and a nighttime firefight is captured with an infrared camera.
Mica Levi, who cut her soundtrack teeth with the excellent science fiction oddity Under the Skin, once again deals an impressively eerie score. Combining deep, rumbling vibrations that echo the blades of a helicopter with a four-note whistle motif, the music of Monos plays as an apt metaphor for the incongruity of its subject matter. Levi throws together sounds that couldn’t be further from each other in tone, just as the children should be far away from war. It adds a visceral undercurrent to the film and elevates its ethereal qualities. Monos is a vivid experience, a statement that reality can be just as frightening, if not more so, than even the worst nightmare.