Alejandro Landes' Monos is a small stretch for a gifted writer/director who has grown up on the tour-de-force classics about jungle mayhem and survival such as Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now; Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God; and William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Sprinkle these with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Landes is ready to display the darkest human tendencies in a jungle backdrop that cares not for civilized niceties.
The Monos are a band of eight teen and younger soldiers in the forest of Colombia doing the bidding of an unknown "Organization" and devolving into anarchy because mature leadership is in short supply. It's a nightmare peopled by out of control young people, most not nice at all.
With guerillas' names like Wolf, Dog, Rambo, Boom Boom, Bigfoot, Swede, Smurf, and Lady, no guessing is needed to feel the allegorical pull, especially with the highly figurative Lord of the Flies as an influence. The rebels are figuratively role playing, and while their names aren't always indicative of their actions, Landes' success defining the different roles is notable given how little time is allotted to all but Rambo and Bigfoot.
With an unknown cause and secret overlords somewhere else, the young folk appear to have established order, the opening montage showing a degree of fitness training heretofore unknown in the civilized world. Yet appearances belie the chaos that will ensue. The presence of an American physician prisoner, Doctora (Julianne Nicholson), does little to mitigate the severe hormonal and emotional imbalances among the young folk.
Nor does the conscripted cow civilize them-it symbolically might offer some gentle milk drinking and provide softening for the hardened rebels. Not so. The mostly set pieces (there is little plot to give coherence and order to the disarray) serve to show the random lives without discernible purpose other than to survive and maybe along the way help an unknown cause. Although Doctora's multiple attempts to escape provide a hint of plot, they are actually weak at furthering the story.
Arguably the best jungle story is Aquirre, where conquistadores carry a Madonna statue down an Andean mountain only to find the devil in the natives. Director Herzog manages to include some dark humor, any humor being absent in the bleak Monos, which is no Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Landes and co-writer Alexis Dos Santos craft an unnerving tale of anarchy, aided by the unsettling score of Mica Levi. Jasper Wolf's cinematography is lurid and claustrophobic, green and menacing, beautiful and dangerous.
Despite the discursive story, Monos is one of the best recent survival films. It's an effective cautionary tale supporting the need for adult supervision.
"The jungle is alive. It's dangerous as a living nightmare and brimful of hostility." Sarah Sheridan