They have names like Rambo, Bigfoot, Wolf, Dog, Lady, Smurf, Swede, Boom Boom. They live, for now, up in the hills of Colombia, high enough that clouds roll in and blanket the fields during pick-up soccer games. (Just to make things interesting, they all play blindfolded.) They have kidnapped an American engineer (Julianne Nicholson) who they call “Doctora”; sometimes, the young women looking after her braid her hair. They answer to “The Messenger” (Wilson Salazar), a small, muscular man who represents “The Organization.” They shoot guns, stage guerilla attacks, perform military exercises like an army preparing for battle. They are all child soldiers, collectively known as “Monos” and fighting for reasons they may or may not understand. Their median age is 13.
Filmmaker Alejandro Landes’ woozy, dreamlike drama — call it a collective character study or maybe a perpetual-war film — takes it cues from a number of well-known influences, from Apocalypse Now to Lord of the Flies, Herzog to Buñuel. But there’s a specific, singular madness that this movie conjures up that’s completely its own, a spell it casts that goes way beyond homages or spot-the-reference pastiches. You can get lost in the surreal beauty that Landes and his collaborators (notably cinematographer Jasper Wolf and composer Mica Levi, whose score sounds like an auto-tuned engine downshifting) bring to this tale; a handful of breathtaking shots, ranging from a purple flare arcing across a skyline at dusk to a firefight filtered through night-vision goggles, will cause you to gasp aloud and/or haunt you for weeks. The filmmaker has said he wanted the movie to feel like a fever dream, to which one can only reply “Mission accomplished.” (It knows how to fill a big screen, and deserves to be seen that way.) In fact, it’s so easy to be taken up by the sheer hallucinogenic spectacle of it all that when viewers are jolted back to the reality of the situation — these are kids wielding those weapons — the effect is jarring.
Not that Monos ever really lets you forget that these rebels without a discernible cause are underage, and more or less without a chaperone. For every scene in which the group is forced to run drills whenever the barking, swaggering Messenger swings by (the fact that Salazar is an ex-member of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the country’s populist militia commonly known as FARC, lends an extra edge of authenticity to the training sequences), there are a half dozen other moments in which these adolescents make out with each other, dance around campfires, and generally behave like unruly teens at a basement party. When an ambush forces them to move their basecamp, it’s initially just a change of scenery — welcome to the jungle, we’ve got new fun and games. But then things start to go awry, folks go missing and the recently appointed squad leader Bigfoot (Moises Arias) declares that they will no longer recognize the Organization as an authority. He is taking command of the unit. Will his methods become unsound, you ask? We don’t see any method at all.
Once some locals down river come into the picture, Monos switches into a nightmare mode that almost qualifies it as horror, along with a few survivalist-thriller elements thrown in as well. It’s all over but the shooting at that point, yet Landes guides you to the climax in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or exploitative — the movie is merely making good on the promise that killers are bred, not born, and any moral compass can be shattered. The kids are not alright. It’s possible to read the film’s final shot as either hopeful or nihilistic in a nobody’s-at-the-wheel type of way. It’s impossible, however, to shake the feeling that you’ve just witnessed something compelling, chilling, cinematic — and a major work of art.