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MOVIES: Monos (LFF 2019) - Review

Alejandro Landes’ Monos is a neverending nightmare that you can’t quite fully escape from, as the film keeps you glued to your seat for the entirety of its runtime. Pulled into a harsh, bleak mountaintop in the middle of nowhere with the fog a constant presence, we are introduced to eight child soldiers who are the film’s main characters. They are instructed by their superiors to – in addition to an American prisoner that they are keeping hostage – guard a conscripted milk cow named Shakira with their lives, and ordered at all costs not to let it die. Yet immediately, things go horribly wrong and almost the very next day the cow gets on the receiving end of a bullet, plunging the group into a world of trouble.

The film itself is visceral and incredibly powerful. It is Lord of the Flies dialled up to eleven with an intensity to match the very best survival epics – comparisons can be drawn to the likes of Apocalypse Now, The Lost City of Z and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and it is distinctive enough to stand on its own compared to the classics of the genre, adding its own twist with the focus on a group of young guerrilla soldiers, outcasts from the rest of society who have formed a tight-nit bond among themselves. Yet as the characters journey deeper and deeper into the jungle away from their temporary refuge of the mountaintop the more their bonds start to fall apart, the more their madness overcomes them. They start to suspect and start to turn on their own, and it is soon clear that nobody is safe, and nobody can be trusted.

There is enough development given to the names of the kids of the film, no older than fifteen, to give them each a clear and distinctive voice. The audience sympathises with them, loathes them and pities them. Their names are inventive – using aliases like Bigfoot, Boom Boom, Swede, Rambo and Lady, and the performances by the likes of Moisés Arias (The Kings of Summer), Sofia Buenaventura, Julian Giraldo, Karen Quintero, Laura Castrillón, Deiby Rueda, Esneider Castro and Paul Cubides are all good and incredibly consistent throughout the film's runtime. Arias makes Bigfoot terrifying, and Buenaventura gives Rambo added depth to make the character one of the most likeable out of the group.

All of the young soldiers get their moments of vulnerability where we’re reminded just how human these characters are, but we also get to see where their strengths lie, reminding us that they're more than just the well disciplined, organised outfit that their command wants them to be. I, Tonya's Julianne Nicholson is also impressive as the captive American Doctor, who finds her situation looking increasingly more desperate as the film progresses, not unlike her captors. The film refreshingly keeps things simple and to the point, we don't get a lengthy explanation telling us why the characters are there and neither do we get more background about the war that they're fighting. The script instead plunges us immediately into the situation and requires the audience to pay attention to what's happening around them.

The landscape is utterly breathtaking and arguably the film’s real star as Jasper Wolf’s cinematography is eye-catching, with some incredibly memorable shots in this film that really help capture how desolate the world of Monos is, not shying away from depicting its bleak landscape. It’s harsh and unforgiving at the best of times, and covered in mud. Outside of that, the jungle is not much better; warm, hot, humid and just as deadly. Just like in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Landes keeps the enemy that the children are facing hidden for most of the films’ running time, and we never see them aside from sporadic glimpses in the dark, yet we know that they’re a real threat to the children as the terrain itself.

At times Monos feels a bit too obtuse in its approach, and the symbolism doesn’t quite feel as effective as it could have been handled, but there’s more than enough there to like and recommend; and perhaps most importantly, it feels like something that’s best watched on the biggest screen possible, able to provide an experience that will stick with you long after the film is over.

Monos is released in the UK on 25 October, and is currently available to watch in the USA. The trailer can be watched here.

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