Alejandro Landes’ hypnotic thriller Monos is a daring leap into experimental, dark and gritty cinema. Eight child soldiers amidst an unspecified conflict in an undisclosed location attempt to follow the orders of their omnipresent, tyrannical rulers known simply as “The Organisation”. Soon, all hell breaks loose as the group are forced to retreat from their mountain outpost into the depths of the jungle below, where tensions boil over into unrelenting violence.
Despite Landes’ evident inspiration originating from guerrilla fighting in Colombia, his commitment to ambiguity is a fascinating approach that proves fruitful. There is an absence of dates, locations, and historical or political context that might be introduced through on screen text. Such interventions would likely only serve as unnecessary, jarring distractions to a broadly universal story of desperation, the corrupting nature of conflict and the human capacity to inflict cruelty.
Landes is as ruthless as he is imaginative, demonstrating that he shows no remorse in casually slaying protagonists and antagonists alike. By no means a veteran director, the way in which he combines adrenaline inducing escape attempts with slow and emotional sequences is hugely impressive, ensuring the bloodshed as impactful as it needs to be.
The spectacle is grounded in gritty realism that ensures the audience is engaged. As the group disintegrates into animosity and violence, although shocking, it is painfully believable. Early in the narrative, subtle indications of underlying rivalries manage to disrupt the overriding sense of camaraderie. When these tensions surface into chaos, motivations and alliances are already well enough established that the film is bewildering and absurd in a wonderfully cinematic and terrifying way – rather than bewildering in confusion and frustration.
Monos is worth experiencing even just to witness its incredible cinematography, provided by Jaspar Wolf. The film is bursting with breathtaking shots of unforgiving landscapes, capturing the intimidating nature of bleak mountaintops and suffocating jungle. These are supplemented with haunting shots of the characters themselves, from the tearstained faces of terrified victims to the animalistic snarl of their feral tormentors.
The lens is used expertly to drive home the devastating impact of the film’s developments. What begins as an unsettling and ominous dreamlike sequence consisting of erotic episodes and well-acted, tense exchanges quickly devolves into a horrifying nightmare that you can’t help but watch in awe. If the constant threat conjured up by the plot and cinematography were not enough to command engagement from its audience already, Monos contains one of the most inventive musical accompaniments you will have the pleasure of hearing amongst recent releases. Strings and synthesiser sporadically combine in brief intervals throughout the narrative to form a deeply unsettling rhythmic melody. From uneasy sexual encounters to scenes of torment and anguish, this recurring sound renders gripping moments all the more effective.
Such instances ensure Monos is not a film that is particularly easy to comprehend. With its stubborn ambiguity and reliance on imagery and music rather than dialogue, Landes has created something that is less of a story and more of a piece of art you sit and bear witness to. Regardless, it is a fantastic, bold and unique film, perhaps unlike anything you have seen before or are likely to see for the foreseeable future.
Image: Sergio Fabara Muñoz via Flickr