Sundance first look: Monos is a surrealist trip into the jungle

A squad of teenage soldiers and their panic-stricken hostage go on an eerie and absurd journey in this tense thriller directed by Alejandro Landes.

Jordan Hoffman
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Monos (2019)

Monos (2019)

Somewhere in a Latin American mountain range, a group of teens perform calisthenics and military exercises. Their drill sergeant is a minuscule man who is nonetheless jacked, his chest as much a slab of stone as the rocky terrain that surrounds them. The kids have code names like Boom Boom, Rambo, Dog, Smurf, Lady, Swede, Bigfoot and Wolf. They are The Organization (or maybe just a branch of it) and after their taskmaster leaves they are told to keep an eye on their prisoner (an American woman called Doctora, played by Julianne Nicholson) and also to make sure the milch cow is kept safe. Things do not go smoothly.

There’s a bonfire party after an approved ‘partnership’ between one of the boys and girls, and this leads to the first of many instances of sudden violence. The group, left alone among the clouds and dew, is left to figure out its next steps on its own. We never quite learn what the larger scheme is, and this narrative distance is amplified by director Alejandro Landes’s unusual framing against rapturous location photography. Composer Mica Levi injects unusual soundscapes to create an eerie, unwelcoming feeling, which is oftentimes punctuated by absurdist humour. Monos has the best and weirdest gag about gummy bears I’ve ever seen in a feature film.

‘Monos’ translates as ‘monkeys’, and while there is indeed a small simian in one scene, the title’s implication of little rascals at play is never far from one’s mind, no matter how deadly the action becomes. After a battle (and a mushroom trip) the band descends from their hilltop fortress to the sweaty, mudslide-prone fly-infested jungle. The individual soldiers never quite gel as characters on their own, but we watch many of them bond with Doctora at different times. She see-saws between a kind of Stockholm Syndrome and a furious desire to escape at any cost. With almost no discernible backstory for her character, Nicholson’s performance is an adrenaline-fuelled waking nightmare, quite mesmerising as she veers between panic and cold calculation.

While sharing surface similarities with Cary Joy Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, Monos’s determination to stray from moralising or tugging the heartstrings over lost youth may frustrate some viewers. It is actually the film’s greatest strength. The surrealist shooting style (extreme close-ups on determined faces as out-of-frame bodies toil in exercise) and occasional dips into humour (Doctora’s tense delivery of her proof-of-life phrase “Spider-Man is the greatest” killed me) are a bit of a risk, but Landes pulls it off. One quickly buys into the film’s gravitas; by not being set anywhere specific, it is set everywhere, man.

Monos was purchased by Neon for US distribution after its Sundance premiere and Landes was quickly signed to a new talent agency. He certainly has the eye and ability to handle larger-budget Hollywood movies. (There’s an action sequence set in rocky rapids that seemed way too dangerous to be real, but I don’t know how they faked it.) While I’d love to see Landes working on a larger canvas, there’s part of me that wishes he’ll remain an insurgent up in the hills for at least one more movie.

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