As a volunteer for the Sundance Film Festival, I was responsible for collecting ballots for a film after the screening ended; being in that position allows me to hear a lot of the reactions to a film from guests exiting the theater. Of the films that were screening while I was volunteering, one of the more raved-about films was Alejandro Landes’s Monos, referred to by one of the festival-goers as Lord of the Flies (1990) meets Apocalypse Now (1979). It did not take any more than that for me to be completely sold, so I made that my next screening. And I will say that the comparison is not far off; Monos reminds me of those two films in different ways, but it is a brutal, uncompromising sensory experience all its own.
On a secluded mountaintop, eight young kids and teenagers are tasked to guard a hostage and watch over a milk cow. These young men and women, armed with guns and under the strict guidance of a military commander, deal with everyday young adult feelings: love, anger, jealousy, you name it. In the most extreme of conditions, though, these feelings lead to extreme ramifications. As tensions rise in this group of alienated soldiers amidst a violent war, primal urges begin to take reign.
The casting of mostly unknowns, save for Moises Arias as the unhinged code-named Bigfoot and notable character actress Julianne Nicholson as the hostage, is a really smart choice, adding to the sense that these are just kids who have been thrust into warfare. All of them are convincing, especially when considering that a lot of their acting is without dialogue. You visibly see how these kids are changing. A lot of the story hinges on subtler character moments and decisions that furthers their descent into a kind of primal madness, and these scenes only work if the actors can make us believe it.
It also helps that Alejandro Landes has such an arresting visual style, putting the audience right on top of the mountain ranges and into the jungle environments. Along with the apparent Apocalypse Now vibes (and an extremely obvious Lord of the Flies homage that is impossible to miss), Terrence Malick comes to mind as an inspiration for the kind of floating camera technique in observing the characters. Breathtakingly shot by Jasper Wolf, the cinematography captures the immediate danger of the war-torn landscape and the immense beauty of the natural environments. One specific shot in a helicopter overlooking the jungle, with the helicopter blades spinning violently at the top of the frame, is seared into my brain. The stark intonations of Mica Levi’s score add a surreal element to the proceedings, the mix of beautiful sights and harsh sounds creating a haunting experience that only cinema could provide.
And yet, I wish that we had more resolution with some of the principal characters. As we reach the end of the film, Landes shifts focus to one of the teenagers, leaving the rest of the group by the wayside. And while I think the ending he chooses is a decidedly impactful and thematically resonant one, it feels odd to leave the fates undefined for many of the people we’ve spent the entire film with. Also, this could have just been the fact that I was sleep-deprived when I saw it, but the film feels quite a bit longer than its 102-minute runtime, its pacing at times lethargic for a film attempting to put you in a cinematic trance. However, this does not take away from the absorbing imagery and soundscape, and I am sure in a more alert state I might feel differently about the overall movement of the film.
Narrative faults aside, if you give yourself over to Monos and let the film wash over you, you will be rewarded with a richly surreal film-going experience that is hard to come by these days. Saying so much without dialogue, allowing the imagery and sound to tell the story, it’s definitely a film that requires patience. But once you become entranced by the sheer hypnotic nature of Monos, it becomes a film you will not soon forget.