Monos is more a beautiful reflection of what could have been rather than a satisfying parable about a world gone wild.
Monos unfolds on a landscape that is definitely somewhere on Earth but feels utterly alien. Clouds encircle mountain peaks as a cadre of young men and women train in front of a dilapidated structure. It could have once been a factory or a palace. This scrappy band, children on the precipice of adulthood, look as if they have gone feral. They speak in Spanish but Monos never tells us exactly where we are or what they are training for. They possess nicknames such as Wolf, Rambo, Bigfoot, Lady. Trained to kill, these young people are waiting for something to happen. At night, they while their free time away fighting, fucking and doing drugs.
Directed by Alejandro Landes, Monos has a potent premise, featuring audacious cinematography and an appealing cast of young unknowns. The mystery at its heart revolves around the exact nature of the Organization for which they fight; who do they fight against and why? Their task seems simple: guard an English-speaking hostage they call Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) and take care of a milk cow, named Shakira, on loan to them during their fight of resistance. Not much happens in the first 20 minutes as Landes establishes the culture of the group. We learn about their rituals, the pecking order, what they do in their spare time. Mostly, they are waiting around for battle and we are waiting around with them. Yet, Monos is never boring. The cloud-choked landscape keeps things beautiful.
We slowly learn about the characters through hints and small actions. Landes never telegraphs any details about their past or what led them to join the Organization. Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) is low on the social ladder. Presenting as male, she is constantly cajoled and even beat up by her comrades. Meanwhile, squad leader Wolf (Julián Giraldo) and his paramour Lady (Karen Quintero) are given permission to become lovers as the savage Bigfoot (Moises Arias) skulks around on the periphery, eager to institute his own version of order.
Many reviews have equated Monos to Lord of the Flies, and when the group splinters off on its own, the film dives pretty deep into Golding territory. Hell, there is even a pig that is killed at one point. However, unlike the classic novel or Peter Brook’s 1963 adaptation, Landes keeps us at arm’s length from his characters. Rambo may become Ralph at one point to Bigfoot’s Jack, but there is little to tie us to these people emotionally.
If we can connect with anyone, it’s Doctora, whose plight is subsidiary to most of the action in Monos. After a botched escape, she is bound in chains, but beyond signifying the “other,” we know very little about why the Organization has her and what they hope to gain by keeping her captive. Nicholson does great work with very few lines, her distress and terror palpable as she realizes that the people holding her have no plan.
The second half of Monos takes place in the claustrophobic confines of a rain forest. As more modern elements appear—such as a car or a television—the movie loses the mythic feel that comprises its first act. Hunted and desperate, the children warriors in Monos begin to unravel. Unfortunately, Landes’ film also begins to disentangle. Despite thrilling moments where the child warriors paint themselves with mud and hunt the escaped Doctora, Monos refuses to offer closure for most of its characters, and that’s a mistake. By the time the film ends with a shot straight out of Platoon, Monos is more a beautiful reflection of what could have been rather than a satisfying parable about a world gone wild.