On an isolated mountaintop in Latin America, a group of teenagers endure a vigorous training regime. Given code names such as Wolfe, Rambo, Bigfoot, Lady, Swede, Boom Boom, Dog and Smurf, the group follows a strict set of rules. Everything from who is responsible for milking their lone cow to who can couple up romantically must be approved by their instructor.
What appears to be a gruelling military summer camp at first quickly revels itself to be something far more sinister. These teenagers are rebel commandos, known as Monos, who are entrenched in a dangerous mission. They have been entrusted by a mysterious entity called the Organization to keep a watch over American hostage Doctora Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson). However, when the realities of war cause the teenage soldiers to regroup in the jungle, loyalties are soon tested as a fight for survival ensues.
Dropping the audience right into the heart of darkness, director Alejandro Landes’ Monos provides just enough breadcrumbs to guide the way. He lets the group’s volatile dynamics tell the story. A tension filled experience that grabs viewers by the throat and does not let go, Monos is equally thrilling and thought-provoking.
Landes never delves into who the teens are working for, the nature of the war or even the hostage’s significance in all of this. This makes for a somewhat muddle final act that does not convey the same weight one would expect from a tale about the indoctrination of youth into adult conflicts.
What Monos lacks in detail, it makes up for in sheer experience. Captured in breathtaking cinematography by Jasper Wolf, Landes’ film truly immerses the viewer in the landscape the teens inhabit. Thanks to the stunning visuals and phenomenal sound design, one can practically touch the clouds on the mountain top and feel the relentless insects buzzing around in the jungle.
The astute attention to nature, and the primal way it impacts the soldiers, adds to the disturbing unease that permeates the film. While they may be trained to be gun-toting wolves, Landes skillfully reminds us that, at their core, they are misguided lambs; teenagers still navigating the awkward aspects of youth.
The mountaintop serves as their own version of the Garden of Eden, a place where they are most free to explore gender, sexuality and the recklessness of adolescence. It is the accidental death of the cow, and not an apple, that will usher in their inevitable fall from grace.
Delicately balancing increasingly unstable group dynamics with Watson’s fight for survival, Monos is one of the year’s hidden gems.