Melding a teen drama with the hypnotic jungle trip of Apocalypse Now, Monos is a film both easy to pigeonhole and hard to fully get a handle on. It defies expectations, from the strange, shifting story to its fluid handling of gender within the platoon of child soldiers that serve as its stars. One of the most striking films of 2019, Monos is a ridiculously strong introduction to the world stage for Brazilian director Alejandro Landes.
Taking place during a civil war in an unspecified South American country, Monos examines a rapid, yet inevitable, breakdown of social order as a squadron of isolated, gun-toting teens break away from the flimsy command structure of the rebels they are supposedly fighting for. A lot of this story is told without dialogue, the characters communicating with each other through physicality as much as words.
Sex, violence, and ritual celebrations are shot through with an odd mix of wooziness and clarity, which sounds conflicting on paper but works mesmerizingly well in practice. Given all the chaos of the story and environment, Landes maintains a remarkable level of control, and his sound design is every bit as immersive as his stunning vistas and oppressive jungles.
His true masterstroke, though, is in bringing in Mica Levi to do the music. Hers is the best score this year without a shadow of a doubt, miles ahead of the competition. It rolls in like thunder some times, and sneaks up on you in others, always elevating what’s on screen with stunningly original compositions.
Though it is mainly a sensory experience, Monos doesn’t rest on these laurels to avoid telling a compelling story. It’s tense, exciting, and affecting, as well as a true ensemble piece that does justice to all its players, ending with the perfect amount of ambiguity.
CAST: Sofia Buenaventura, Moises Arias, Julianne Nicholson, Karen Quintero, Laura Castrillon
DIRECTOR: Alejandro Landes
WRITERS: Alejandro Landes, Alexis Dos Santos
SYNOPSIS: On a faraway mountaintop, eight kids with guns watch over a hostage and a conscripted milk cow.