REVIEW: Monos [2019]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 102 minutes
    Release Date: August 15th, 2019 (Colombia)
    Studio: Cine Colombia / Neon
    Director(s): Alejandro Landes
    Writer(s): Alejandro Landes & Alexis Dos Santos / Alejandro Landes (story)

The Organization is our family.

A scene of kids having fun playing a game of blindfolded soccer at night turns into a day of boot camp with an unknown man (Wilson Salazar) berating them like a drill sergeant to run faster, look meaner, and stand straighter. These child soldiers are hiding high up in the Colombian mountains—passing time with automatic rifles at the ready while watching over a kidnapped woman (Julianne Nicholson‘s Doctora) held for reasons also unknown. Our assumption is political leverage because they put her in front of a camera to talk while holding a newspaper, but the why is ultimately irrelevant to director Alejandro Landes and co-writer Alexis Dos Santos‘ story. Monos isn’t about the details of this civil war. It’s about these youths growing up within its midst.

How does the responsibility of leadership affect Wolf (Julian Giraldo) as their commander? How do evolving hormones affect their attention to the mission when a yearning for companionship rears its head? Wolf and Lady (Karen Quintero) want to be together and their aforementioned drill sergeant gives permission before collecting his proof of life and leaving them alone once again. The squad (going by Monos) decides to celebrate the union and newcomer Rambo’s (Sofia Buenaventura) fifteenth birthday with unbridled revelry. Doctora even joins the fun—how else can teens keep her at ease from thinking about overpowering them for an escape attempt? But this freeing atmosphere removes them from their routine. Their inherent immaturity takes control and mistakes are made. “Playing” soldiers eventually turns into being soldiers.

That transition during a war is completely unpredictable. You can take these children and raise them to be killers, but you can’t know if the indoctrination worked until the opportunity to pull the trigger arrives. The military they are serving isn’t a forgiving one either so the smallest transgression or failure carries repercussions. What happens as a result of this party, however, demands an execution. Wolf, Lady, Rambo, Boom Boom (Sneider Castro), Swede (Laura Castrillón), Dog (Paul Cubides), Smurf (Deiby Rueda), and Bigfoot (Moises Arias) must therefore decide where their loyalties lie. Is it with a special ops force they never see? This man who sometimes comes over to whip them into shape? Or is it to each other? Once the latter is chosen, there’s no going back.

Now it becomes about protecting each other and eventually each individual protecting him/herself. They tell their superiors one lie and the next comes easy. They start counting on themselves so every problem becomes subject to an internal solution before an external one. And as soon as they catch a whiff of independence, they grab hold without a desire to let go. The likes of Bigfoot, Boom Boom, Swede, and Dog crave that power while Lady, Smurf, and Rambo begin to have second thoughts. Some of the latter group begins to see their survival is reliant on the former’s protection while others recognize flight to be their only means of protecting themselves. Chaos replaces regimen and Doctora can no longer pretend it’ll all end well for her.

Landes has said that finding his mountaintop locale dictated a lot of the movement within the plot because the water source there trickled down to the violent currents in the jungle below. So just as his characters begin to cement their aggressive tendencies, the world around them does too. What was cool and carefree becomes hot and on-edge. Where they were glorified security guards in the sky, they’re now feral creatures in the mud. In Bigfoot’s mind they have become their own “Organization” that answers to no other. Doctora is their prisoner and they will deal with her as they see fit. Suddenly curiosity about what side they fight for (if a “good” side exists in this war) evaporates because their internal fracture creates its own isolated struggle.

The film’s intensity grows until that ambiguity between childhood and adulthood fades away. Those with the capacity to kill lose their final shred of virtue and those without it realize there’s nowhere to turn. Even Doctora must steel herself to the fact that these kids are either too vulnerable to help or too disinterested in her life as anything more than theirs to own. Her hope to appeal to their youthful need for a parental safety net is erased with the sound of a cackle devoid of empathy. It becomes “us versus them” as trust and allegiance are thrown out the window. Maybe someone will stick his/her neck out for another, but only so far that theirs isn’t cut instead. Obedience is built through fear rather than respect.

To acknowledge this descent is to also see the mirrored contrast from mountain to jungle because the visual beauty of what’s on-screen never wavers. Whether it’s children laughing in the night with guns pointed at the sky, an actual firefight with explosions throwing them into the deep-end, or painted bodies ambushing unsuspecting trespassers with nothing but the sounds of kissed hands to guide them (a motif amplified throughout Mica Levi‘s tense score), we’re mesmerized by the film’s exotic allure. And we’re riveted by the unrelenting cruelty and abject futility gradually exposed as the plot progresses towards oblivion. Survival ultimately means trading one set of shackles for another as innocence is rendered a fallacy of the naïve. No one gets out alive without blood on his/her hands.

[1] Rambo Silhouette (Sofia Buenaventura) in MONOS. Courtesy of NEON.
[2] Doctora Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson) in MONOS. Courtesy of NEON.
[3] MONOS. Courtesy of NEON

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