LFF 2019: Monos Review
Monos, the second dramatic feature from director Alejandro Landes, has been showered with praise since its Sundance debut for how it reinvigorates a familiar Lord of the Flies-esque premise: a distinctly uncomfortable film that doesn’t live in the shadow of its overt influence. It’s an abrasive experience, plunging the audience deep into the world of a teenage gang, and never providing the necessary context as to why they’re stranded in remote Latin America, watching over an American hostage and a cow. These aspects initially appear to be mere McGuffins in order to create tension and inter-gang rivalries, made far more intense due to how cut off from the wider world they are.
And yet, once the adrenaline rush of watching it has worn off, this lack of context that keeps the viewer at arm’s length is what stops Landes’ film from achieving its full potential. The glimmers of a fully realised world at the peripheries of this story help sustain intrigue throughout, but on reflection, this appears to be no more than window dressing - an illusion to a greater story about a military conflict that Landes has no interest in telling. His film is undeniably exciting, and inventive enough (while remaining firmly within a well worn premise) to ecstatically recommend. But the more I think back to it, the more I find it hard to overlook his eagerness to avoid anything that would add more depth to a story that thrives on surface style.
A group of rebel teenage commandos known as the Monos have been given one mission: hide out on a mountaintop to watch over an American prisoner (Julianne Nicholson) and a cow named Shakira that has been provided by the army. But the group are increasingly fractured, and following an accident and a subsequent ambush, they are sent to hide out in the jungle where it isn’t just their prisoner who is trying to make a run for it.
The reason that the lack of wider context beyond the simplicity of this premise is so frustrating is because it rarely feels clear as to whether or not Landes has a deeper message. It’s not like his film is vacuous without it; the teenage gang don’t conform to gender roles, and there’s something thrilling about characters who appear to be non binary being part of a group that operates on pure machsimo, using nicknames like “Rambo” and “Bigfoot”. But there isn’t a wider statement, or subversion of masculine expectations, behind this specific idea - it’s eye catching, irresistible surface style, but surface style nonetheless.
Of course, none of this would be a problem if there weren’t repeated suggestions of a greater system on the margins of this story, that these characters have been forced into. But overlook these nagging narrative qualms, and you do have an intoxicating thrill ride which manages to bridge the gap between arthouse and midnight movie mayhem, feeling otherworldly even as it becomes obvious which direction the story is heading in. This is in no small part due to the excellent score from Mica Levi, who in just her fourth screen credit, can easily claim to be the best movie composer working today. With her disorienting score in the background, even the most inconsequential moments feel laced with an unspoken dread.