Monos at LFF: an unholy, malarial trance

Monos plays like a slow-motion freefall from an exploding jet plane at 43,000 feet. Taking audiences on a swirling, horrifyingly psychedelic journey from far above wispy cirrus clouds to a miserable destination deep under the roaring waters beneath, Alejandro Landes’ unholy art-Aguirre is an impressionistic, rampaging nightmare.

In an unnamed region of an unidentified country, the Monos are an elusive group of guerrilla child soldiers tasked with guarding a western prisoner (Julianne Nicholson) and a precious milk cow, but not much else. They’re informed of their tasks by the mysterious Organisation over a bulky analogue radio and occasionally visited by The Messenger (Wilson Salazar) – a small man coated in rippling muscles who appears as if an apparition or a mirage on horseback. It could be 2019 or 1990, the only giveaway that this isn’t the 1960’s being a small-ish digital camera that The Messenger brings to record proof that the prisoner is still alive.

The bitter taste of civil war lurks at the back of the tongue but it’s not clear who the Monos are fighting or why – one suspects they have no idea either. Trapped in the disintegrating ruins of an ancient military installation on the drizzly peak of a spectacular mountain, surrounded by cosmic gyres of cloud drenched in vibrant slushee blue, they slip and skid through pools of squelching mud.

With codenames like Wolf, Rambo, Dog and Bigfoot, they treat war as somewhat of a game incidental to the real battle – growing up. Forging friendships, keeping fit, having sexual relationships and hanging out, it’s almost easy to forget that they’re soldiers. When vicious machine guns make their periodic appearance onscreen, the effect is so jarring that it’s almost akin to a jumpscare. The first half of the film operates a lot like this – a sky-high character study of young bodies under incomprehensible stress.

Inevitably, though, things go very wrong indeed. Following a shocking string of destructive events, the second half of Monos descends dizzyingly through the tropical jungle towards an unpredictable, violent conclusion. As the group begins to splinter, Lord of the Flies style, and lose their grip on reality (comparisons to Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, though by this point hackneyed, are spot on), the inhospitable, feral jungle becomes a maze of fear and confusion. A mutiny sees the radio – the Monos’ only contact with the outside world – destroyed, and all that we can do is let the madness take its course.

Light on plot, what makes this picture so spine-tinglingly electric is its hulking presence as a dizzyingly surreal moodscape. Enveloped in Mica Levi’s astonishingly brilliant immersive score, which sounds like an explosion in some long-lost, underwater industrial factory, Jasper Wolf’s immaculate images lure the viewer into an oneiric trance. Super-saturated greens, blues and oranges burst from the screen like lush outcroppings of tropical greenery whilst a ridiculously accomplished sound design fills the auditorium with wildlife so present you can practically reach out and touch it. A late-night fever-dream of a mosquito attack is intense enough to spur a panic attack.

The spectre of sexual awakening drips from the corners of the screen, leaking into the very fabric of the film. More than anything else, the actions of the Monos feel compelled by adolescent desire, as if these soldiers are possessed by overwhelming lust and frustration. Love, violence, fear, captivity, drug abuse – no matter what, interpersonal relations always end up in confused, frantic making out or fucking. Gender? Age? Captive or Captor? Friend or foe? It doesn’t matter – the gravitational force of desire is so strong that none can escape it.

Like the roaring flood from a tropical storm, Monos drags viewers soaking wet through a malarial trance from a distant mountaintop to the depths of savage rapids. Sweating powerful sexuality, and pouring glacial, trance-like images onto the screen so powerful that they practically feel 3-D, Landes’ film feels like a major work of world cinema. When the sheer elemental force of a film is as overpowering as it is here, there’s no use trying to resist – the only option is to give in; to be taken by the current; to be lost in these monolithic images. Whether you’ll wash up, unscathed, on some distant shore by the end of it all is merely incidental – how long can you hold your breath?


James is a postgraduate law student at LSE, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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