Rambo. Smurf. Wolf. Boom Boom. Bigfoot. Lady. The aliases of the teenagers living on a lonely mountaintop in South America in Monos are charmingly childish, and reflective of their personalities in some way. Up in the clouds, in an unnamed country gripped by an unspecified civil war, the teens wrestle, dance, and play hierarchical games of power and camaraderie with the carefree energy of high-school students. But casually slung around their shoulders are machine guns, and in their care is an American doctor (Julianne Nicholson), a hostage they’ve been ordered to guard.
That chilling premise casually abuts the gorgeous scenery and gleeful youthfulness of Monos’ ensemble. The new film from Alejandro Landes mixes the spectacular with the mundanely disturbing, exploring the lives of teenage soldiers in a conflict both they and the audience can’t hope to fully understand. On the mountain, they’re essentially removed from authority, told only to keep “Doctora” alive by a commander who sporadically visits and otherwise keeps in touch via radio. Monos is an atmospheric look at this strange idyll and the ways it begins to crumble; it’s a great big-screen experience that functions best on a purely sensory level.
That’s partly because Landes keeps the plotting and world-building deliberately light. Whatever real-life conflicts the film might be inspired by, there’s no effort to explain what’s going on beneath the mountain. The soldiers are called monos (Spanish for “monkeys”), and their cartoonish names are aliases, bestowed on them by their mysterious commander. Whatever lives they once led are not alluded to; their existence is now confined to this high peak, and that includes any romantic encounters (which have to be approved by their overseers). The first half of the film, a disconnected series of snippets from the soldiers’ days, conveys that sense of isolation, as alluring as it is frightening.
Landes, a Colombian-Ecuadorean director who co-wrote the film with Alexis Dos Santos, uses the beautiful locations he’s shooting at to his advantage. So many of the early scenes see the soldiers dancing, fighting, and napping against rugged cliffs and walls of clouds, emphasizing just how cut off from reality everything feels. Besides the doctor (who is almost one of the gang, participating half-heartedly in some of the social rituals), the only interloper is a cow named Shakira, provided by the army as a source of milk; she’s a curious object of domesticity in a landscape that looks thrillingly untamed.
The film’s dialogue is brief, often nonsensical, and of secondary importance to the hypnotic score by Mica Levi, an experimental musician. Her work on movies such as Under the Skin and Jackie have made her a rare and attention-worthy cinematic composing talent. She has a skill for making discordant tones sound harmonious: As the soldiers dance around the fire and roll around in the grass, the background music thrums, whooshes, and shrieks—an abstract but emotional soundtrack to a bizarre and circumscribed world.
I found the first half of Monos enthralling, even as I wondered whether its narrative needed some structure. But simply observing the goings-on in this odd milieu is dramatic enough, so when a more propulsive story does eventually kick off, the film ironically loses its energy, getting bogged down in the more familiar conflicts common to such Lord of the Flies–type stories. Needless to say, the gun-toting teenage paradise of the Monos cannot last forever, and eventually the teenagers start to turn both on one another and on their commanding officers.
The latter half of the film is set in the jungles below the mountains and is sweaty, brutal, and quite unpleasant, a nasty dash of reality after the dreamlike opening act. It’s probably a necessary direction for such a film to take, given the underlying horror of the fictional war in question, but Landes is much better at handling fantasy than reality. The experience of living atop the mountain is a shudder-inducing thrill, a transgressive fairy tale for Rambo, Boom Boom, Bigfoot, and the rest. Landes paints that picture delicately and creepily before leaning too hard on blandly visceral imagery when their regimented world starts to collapse. Monos is an undeniable wonder, but one that enchants the most when its head is in the clouds.