When you think commandos, your mind is likely to hark back to the muscle-bound machismo of the 1980’s, heavily featuring one Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. You would hardly envisage a free-spirited group of tearaway teenagers wielding guns.
Yet deep in the Colombian mountains, ‘Monos’ implies this scenario as an unsettling new normal. These naïve young minds may be reaching heady heights in their surroundings, but it soon becomes apparent through Alejandro Landes’ visceral and vital vision, this is a chilling contradiction of their fragile place in the world.
A director who has already been heavily endorsed by Oscar-winning Mexican maestro Guillermo Del Toro. Landes soon plunges us into a disorientating and decadent landscape, along with the familiarity of the nicknames these children inherit, as figures like Bigfoot (Moises Arias), Smurf (Sneider Castro) and Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) make their presence known. Restricted by a regime revolving around draining drills involving blindfolded football and belt-whipping, with a splattering of harmful propaganda to boot.
Collectively they seem oblivious to their radicalisation under the sketchy rule of The Organisation, with only the ripped top-heavy toxicity of The Messenger (Wilson Salazar) providing clarity. They can only bow down to his harsh demands, as they’re suddenly armed with a double mission of keeping watch of an American prisoner of war named Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) and a cow named Shakira, which is considered a vital food source in such unforgiving terrain.
The ways in which Landes grounds its stripped-back narrative through its tasteful twists on coming-of-age tropes, whilst gradually emerging as a painstakingly authentic depiction of modern warfare, is quite staggering. Addressed as both male and female through pronouns used by fellow characters in the film. Its sensitively handled exploration of androgyny through Rambo is a breath of fresh air in a genre where battle-hardened masculinity tends to enforce its authority, befitting of a worrisome time where for example transgender people’s rights across the American landscape are being severely repressed within the military sector.
Whilst the mental strain placed on this youthful batch of protagonists is undeniably captured through the hallucinogenic and hypnotic imagery on display, fuelling the menace and intrigue in its ever-shifting allegiances. From piercing sets of eyes dominating the frame as their war paint creates a mystique on par with a certain X-Men character deep in the jungle, to stunning panoramic shots of flares penetrating the mist of the mountains only heightening the tension, Landes’ superior efforts in driving home the chaos are only enhanced by a remarkable score from Mica Levi. As effective in mirroring the frenzied attack of figure movements when in formation as she is in capturing the troubling fever dream state these characters are a slave to, the genius very much lies in its startling simplicity.
Continuing to grow in stature as a credible screen presence and a far cry from his Hannah Montana days, Moises Arias is frightfully convincing as the imposing Bigfoot who slowly emerges as the great dictator of the piece, when matters turn awry. Julianne Nicholson’s hostage Doctora is certainly the other notable standout here. Both maddening and poignant as she bursts into an interpretative dance when held captive, clinging onto the prospect of truly living again one minute. Proving as calculated as her captors in plotting a desperate escape the next. Her fleshing out of a character that could so easily be one-note in its torment, is captivating.
Utterly compelling right up to its haunting final frame. ‘Monos’ is muscular, mesmeric filmmaking of the finest order.
Directed by: Alejandro Landes
Written by: Alejandro Landes, Alexis Dos Santos
Cast: Sofia Buenaventura, Moises Arias, Julianne Nicholson, Laura Castrillón