'Monos': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Not-so-super troopers.

Child soldiers run amok in director Alejandro Landes' grim jungle thriller.

The hands of fate have bestowed a raw deal on the young protagonists of co-writer and director Alejandro Landes' bleak, rather ghastly Monos. Sporting names like Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), Lobo (Julian Giraldo), Bum Bum (Sneider Castro) and Patagrande (Hannah Montana alum Moises Arias, hard-left-turning into gun-toting psychopathy), these youths and barely-teens are beholden to a mysterious rebel force known only as The Organization, which is conducting terrorist strikes against some ill-defined powers-that-be in South America.

We first see these babyfaced subversives under the harsh tutelage of Mensajero (actual ex-guerrilla Wilson Salazar), a diminutive taskmaster instructing them in gunplay atop a stunningly cloud-shrouded mountain. The landscape is beautiful, and the temperaments hormonal. These are juveniles, after all, who are required to put adolescence on hold so they can become merciless killing machines. But no one can entirely stop them from acting out, and in increasingly violent and depraved ways.

The film suggests Larry Clark's alternately hectoring and leering Kids (1995) as cast with bloodthirsty, horned-up child soldiers. Landes and cinematographer Jasper Wolf rarely miss a chance to ogle these stunted creatures as they paw at and demean each other, as well as tease and torture the American prisoner, Doctora (Julianne Nicholson, gamely trying for gravitas), who is a kind of shell-shocked Patty Hearst figure.

The troop eventually descends into the jungle and their tenuous camaraderie breaks down Lord of the Flies-style. Landes here appears to be trying for an experiential and abstract fever dream — a film about revolution in which the lack of clear goals and ideology is entirely the point. (Mica Levi's unnerving score, which is one of the few creative elements above reproach, certainly helps with the sense of moral dislocation.) The kids can't even take care of a cow properly, so how can they be expected to competently advance a nebulous insurgent agenda?

There's a certain savage poetry in these later scenes, particularly after Buenaventura's androgynous, combat-reluctant Rambo, the closest thing to a protagonist, escapes from the company and is briefly taken in by a rural family. She can only playact at a normal life (she looks at a television as if it's an alien vessel), and the violence she's been a part of eventually catches up with her. But Landes also utilizes her to some shameless emotional ends, notably in an egregious, fourth-wall breaking final shot that strains for the chilly sublime and instead rises below Michael Haneke. Even in this fictional context, the line between portraying and exploiting abused innocence gets uncomfortably, offensively blurred.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Drama)
Production companies: Stela Cine, Bord Cadre Films, CounterNarrative Films, El Campo Cine, Film i Vast, Le Pacte, Lemming Film, Mutante Cine, Pando Producciones, Pandora Filmproduktion, Snowglobe Films
Cast: Julianne Nicholson, Moises Arias, Sofia Buenaventura, Deiby Rueda, Karen Quintero, Laura Castrillon, Julian Giraldo, Paul Cubides, Sneider Castro, Wilson Salazar, Jorge Roman
Director: Alejandro Landes
Screenwriters: Alejandro Landes, Alexis Dos Santos

Producers: Alejandro Landes, Fernando Epstein, Santiago Zapata, Cristina Landes
Editors: Yorgos Mavropsaridis, Ted Guard, Santiago Otheguy
Composer: Mica Levi
Director of photography: Jasper Wolf
Production designer: Daniela Schneider
Sound designer: Lena Esquenazi

102 minutes