Review: Monos (2019)

Monos (2019) is a Spanish language war drama directed by Alejandro Landes, which follows a group of teenage soldiers known only as ‘the Monos’.

Monos film 2019
Monos (2019)

The film starts with the group of young commandos performing training exercises on a remote mountaintop, while watching over a prisoner of war referred to only as “Doctora” who is played by Julianne Nicholson. The Messenger, who oversees the group, visits them to run through their drills and instructs them to push themselves harder. Before departing, he leaves them in charge of a milk cow named Shakira.

The young recruits that make up ‘the Monos’.

We follow the band of kids for most of the film, from the mountain down into the jungle, where they can only rely upon each other for survival. Each of the kids has an alias, or noms de Guerre, the only thing we have to differentiate them. There is Bigfoot, Rambo, Wolf, Lady, Swede, Smurf, Dog and Boom Boom. These names create a distance and provide anonymity to the characters. We get to know their characteristics, but we never find out anything about them personally or where they came from initially.

Striking imagery in Monos (2019)

Once the Messenger has departed, the kids run amok, drinking, partying and goofing around. Amidst the craziness, Dog is shooting celebratory gunfire and ends up accidentally killing the cow. Wolf, who had taken sole responsibility for the animal, fearing the repercussions, commits suicide. The rest of the gang are then fearful of reporting this to Messenger and end up lying to cover for Dog.

Later, the mountaintop becomes the scene of an intense firefight with fellow Monos fighters joining them to fend off the enemy. After a successful night’s fighting, the Messenger instructs the group to take Doctora and relocate to the jungle. Here the power dynamics of the group start to shift through greed, guilt and impulse which leads to a catastrophic implosion within their dynamic.

Moises Arias as Patagrande in Monos (2019)

In choosing the title Monos, Alejandro Landes said that they were focusing on the prefix Mono, in Greek, of course, meaning “alone”. He was inspired to make the film based on the notorious guerilla wars prevalent in South America, particularly the Colombian conflict that started in 1964 and continues to this day. Loosely based on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the film portrays young soldiers at war. Landes drew a lot of influence from the violent imagery used in films such as Come and See (1985), a harrowing film following the Belarusian resistance in the second world war and Beau Travail (1999), which is based on soldiers fighting in the French Foreign Legion. 

It is also interesting that whilst casting the roles, the director chose to have a couple of experienced actors, with the rest of the cast being unknown first-timers, in order to have a troupe of kids that were not acting, but reacting. The only known actor in the group is Moisés Arias, who you may recognise from the Disney Channel series Hannah Montana and films such as Ender’s Game (2013) and The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015).

Monos (2019)

The cinematography of the film creates vivid contrast between the colourful landscapes and the dystopian setting. As the characters descend mentally, fracturing the group, the colours become more vivid, moving from the misty cloudscapes of the mountain into the luscious greens of the claustrophobic jungle. This descent is initiated early on in the film when some of the group take magic mushrooms, leading to a bright and remarkable sequence during their trip.  The visual aesthetic reminds me of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), another film inspired by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which also explores the darkness of the human heart in the midst of a jungle setting. The film really is a beautiful journey to behold.

A fascinating score from Mica Levi complements the striking images onscreen. Levi opted for a minimal soundtrack, using glass bottles and kettle drums to create organic sounds like whistles and beeps layered on top of a constant synth hum that sounds like background noise on a radio. This constant rumbling and movement from the soundtrack create a sense of menace and foreboding. Unlike a traditional soundtrack, here the sounds are organic, placing you in the group’s world as an observer. It’s an unsettling experience.

Sofia Buenaventura as Rambo in Monos (2019)

We move from fairytale-esque drama into a more documentary style, then into a survival thriller, concluding in an action war movie. The film keeps moving and its references are explicit, especially when we see the pig’s head on a spike, just like in Lord of the Flies.

Monos reinforms us that the horrors of guerrilla warfare are happening now, at this moment and how ultimately futile the whole thing is. We don’t see the enemy. We are all the enemy. The destruction of the group, in the end, is internal. It’s that classic story of humanity – showcasing some of the bravest and most amazing things we can do and also some of the darkest and most shameful.

This film is a tragedy about lost innocence and the wickedness of politics and warfare, showing how these things can control you, even without being physically present.

Well, that’s it for this review of Monos!

What did you think of Monos? Did you enjoy it as much as us? Let us know in the comments below.

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David Roberts
Dave is a digital content creator, web and software developer and keen filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @drobertsdigital.