Writer/director Alejandro Landes dives head first into the disturbingly real world issue of child soldiers, a subject that hasn’t been seen too often in cinema and it’s easy to see why given how confronting Monos is. Rather than creating any sort of clear narrative for the young soldiers, Landes focuses firmly on atmosphere and mood to convey the experiences such children/young teenagers are forced to endure, and is forever ambiguous on details. This creates an sense of confusion that mirrors the psyche of the child soldiers. This deliberate decision to focus on the presentation of Monos paints a haunting picture of what such kids experience when raised to be soldiers. A protagonist is never focused on, nor are they even given real names, rather they are known by nicknames such as Boom Boom, Dog, Rambo and the like. Both choices are incredibly dehumanising. We aren’t watching humans, nor do we have a main character to follow and learn about. This all seems fitting for a film where teenagers wielding assault rifles are given military orders, but the childish nature still a part of each can clash with the very adult missions they are tasked with, the most important of which is to guard a prisoner of war who is being held for ransom. Landes intently generates dangerous and difficult situations for Monos, including the aforementioned responsibility of keeping a prisoner, a concept that that some don’t seem to truly understand. Subsequently, they struggle to make rational and logical decisions when one must be made; they are simply too young to understand the nuances of the orders they are taking. This is reflected in how the young soldiers of Monos (Spanish for monkeys) behave: often impulsively without prior thought, most confused and disorientated.
Despite the tough front these unfortunate young souls try to establish, at times their true self is revealed when a tough exterior shatters. Adding further to the sense of confusion are basic facts that are never revealed. How old are they? Where are they? Probably somewhere in South America somewhere given its appearance and the director’s heritage, but we are never explicitly told. Nor do we ever learn how they ended up a part of this group, this last fact dehumanising them further. It is subtly implied in one scene that the character named Boom Boom was raised to be the ideal soldier, but this is the most we ever learn on a factual level. The emotive acting by these non-professional young actors allow us to see what they are feeling, what is swimming in their minds. The rather aimless nature of the group is an ideal analogy for what surely is, at least in part, a sense felt by kids in these situations. Too young to grasp the gravity of what they are doing, they are lost and indeed aimless as they try to comprehend what it is that they need to be doing. To compensate, they try to delude themselves into thinking what they are doing is right, especially the squad leader, which unsurprisingly has the opposite effect. When an offensive attack by their enemies, unnamed of course, they are forced into a forest to hide and to continue their imprisonment of Doctora (who interestingly is the only character whose real name is used). The situation proceeds in an increasingly scattered fashion during the second half of the film, steadily becoming reminiscent of Lord of the Flies; the young group decide to establish their own idea of order. The threadbare framework of order that originally existed falls from existence as the film becomes almost surreal as events begin to defy belief. But the emotive screenplay and disturbing, exhausting and realistic emotional ride keep this from spiralling into any type of a mess. The steady yet varied, picturesque camerawork and use of colour indicate changes in where the film is going as Mica Levi’s score breathes up and down with the film and disorientates, using the juxtaposition of dark synth waves and strangely effective type of innocent sounding whistling. This level of contrast is also eminent in the many shots of the teenagers as silhouettes. Landes’ focus on this and nearly everything but a concrete story not only depicts what it might be like for teenagers finding themselves in this position, but it is the core reason that Monos is one of the most striking, haunting films of 2019.