Monos is weird, disturbing and excellently done. That’s despite the fact that there’s a lot we don’t know and never find out about the actual monos – this fictionalised group of child guerrilla fighters. Who are they, why are they there, what is their goal? We don’t know, and never find out. What we do know is that they are camped out in mountainous terrain in a Colombia-esque country, taking orders from a military group called ‘The Organization’. They also have an American hostage on their hands, a female engineer who they drag out for occasional press-opportunities.
What follows is a tense, viscous, trippy story of children-gone-wild. Machine-gun toting, shroom-taking and spectacularly violent children. Very early on, it’s clear what we’re in for. The group’s version of the ‘birthday beats’ is a severe lashing in which everyone participates, and the young soldiers are constantly exchanging blows. It’s not clear what age the fighters are, but the older ones have been encouraged to form sexual partnerships with each other and do so readily.
At this point it looks like everyone is having fun, even in this freezing, rain-lashed land with brutal and bloody people. Celebrations take on a distinctly cult-like quality with the children gambolling around a fire on all-fours, barking, hooting and firing rounds of bullets. They are covered in mud, and covered in blood. As an audience member the sensation experienced – as with anything verging on the cult-like – is one of distinct unease. This sense is heightened ten-fold and almost unbearably by Mica Levi’s frantic, doom-laden score which continuously crescendos, only to dissipate.
Things begin to unravel when the group is instructed to move into the jungle, taking its hostage with them. The strain of military life begins to tell on every member – punishments gets harsher, relationships fracture and the hostage becomes more and more desperate in her determination to escape. The jungle as a stunning but deadly backdrop is highlighted through impressive canopy views and throughout the film these poster-worthy cinematic shots break-up the general grubbiness – the children moving in unison through the jungle grass, a machine-gun wielding child silhouetted against a spectacular backdrop of clouds, etc. It makes big-screen viewing a must.
Monos is a very well executed thriller, maintaining a constant tension throughout as the audience wonders who’s going to crack next, turning from one wide-eyed, mud-splattered face to another. An unsatisfying ending suits the unsatisfying lack of any context – much is left to the imagination, which isn’t a bad thing. Performances from largely unknown actors are all excellent. Julianne Nicholson plays the hostage as a self-assured grown-up, transforming from relatively calm, to frightened to desperate, while the young actors attack their characters with a combination of disturbing adult brutality and devastating child-like mania. It’s exactly what you hope wouldn’t happen if you gave a load of kids machine guns.
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