Boys and girls on the edge of adulthood kick around a can, blindfolded, playing some makeshift game that’s a hybrid of soccer and Marco Polo to pass the unfilled hours. They live in a stone bunker on top of a mountain surrounded by clouds — their modest castle in the sky. That mountain is in northern Colombia, but it may as well be another planet. Director Alejandro Landes’ thrilling survivalist saga, Monos, tracks the young group; by day, they perform military training exercises, but also just goof around and make out and eat mushrooms; by night, they dance around bonfires and scream toward a heaven they can almost reach out and touch. For all intents and purposes, this foggy, isolated, high-altitude kingdom is Neverland. But there’s no Peter Pan around to fill their lives with meaning or magic.
Going only be code names like, Smurf and Boom Boom, the young guerilla commandos do answer to someone: they’re at the bottom of a chain of command, the lower-ranking grunts of a mysterious militia group called “The Organization.” But they’re also just kids — horny, confused, unsupervised kids, tasked with grave responsibilities they’re nowhere near mature enough to handle. That’s the reigning contradiction, maybe the tragic tension, of the enthralling Monos. Landes builds an entire social ecosystem around these child soldiers, quickly laying out their relationships and routines. In doing so, it shows us how their community — situated at the top of the world, and beholden to the laws of an unseen command fighting far below — is a twisted version of “ordinary” youth culture (and the film entirely can be viewed as an allegory for puberty). However radicalized they may be, however backwards-socialized by their isolation and the violence of their circumstances, they’re still teenagers. They have their own interpersonal dramas, their own consuming crushes and grudges.
As things progress, personalities emerge, forged by a cast of largely unknown actors. We meet Lady (Karen Quintero), who’s antsy with boredom and desire, and the sensitive Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), a character who’s gender identity in never clarified and almost adds another layer to the film because of that. We’re drawn to the boiling, reckless Bigfoot, played by one-time Hannah Montana regular Moises Arias. The Monos, as these junior militants have been dubbed, have at least one serious duty cutting into their unstructured free time: They have to guard a hostage taken by The Organization, an American engineer the teens refer to as Doctora, played by a great Julianne Nicholson. In a more conventional film (or maybe just an American one), Doctora would be at the center of the action — we’d experience this story from her fraught, terrified perspective. Instead, Landes shuttles her off screen for much of the film’s first half, and mostly declines to provide her a backstory; we don’t even learn the details of her kidnapping or learn the Monos or The Organization’s motivations. This works to establish a troubling balance of allegiance, especially once it becomes clear that the prisoner’s survival may be conflicting directly with that of her captors’.
Doctora seems to understand the stakes. And Nicholson communicates sharp amounts of sympathy through her distress: a faint concern for the teenagers holding her hostage, maternal in the same way Tom Hanks was paternal in the likeminded Captain Phillips. (In one remarkable scene, she goes from bargaining with a young guard to comforting her to rejecting the girl’s lustful advances.) This is the movie’s moral and political conscience: the horror of young people as weapons, and of being forced to privilege one’s own life over that of enemies too young to hold responsible. But Monos isn’t just a lamentation for the beasts of no nation. It’s a fever dream of a war drama, caught halfway between realism and the hallucinatory intensity of an ancient fairy tale. The film crafts a gripping atmosphere of anarchy and dread in its first half and builds suspense as the characters further descend into the elements. Vicious mosquitos and surprise mudslides prove that no matter how much the Monos crave their surroundings, they’re boxed into it, anyway. Landes and his cinematographer Jasper Wolf paint this story in mythic strokes, through grand and surreal imagery: bodies silhouetted against blue, wavy skies; nocturnal rituals of fire and smoke; and young soldiers, slathered in mud and handmade war paint, moving in silent, menacing formation. At times, the movie almost veers into fantasy, thanks in no small part to the boom and swell of a haunting, otherworldly score from, maybe the best composer working today, Mica Levi.
As Monos advances, things only grow more and more primal, especially once the platoon is driven off the mountain by a military counterforce. Pushed into the deep jungle below the mountain, where Doctora plots an escape, the adolescent quasi-society begins to splinter and dissolve, and things turn equal parts Lord of the Flies and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. And the movie, too, begins to break down, into an increasingly wordless jungle odyssey of bugs, rain, and blood — a surrealistic wilderness hell worthy of Joseph Conrad and Werner Herzog. As their utopia crumbles, things speed toward a riveting conclusion that leaves the fates of a few characters open-ended, and the possibility of a new chapter. While it avoids injecting specific details about the surrounding Civil War plaguing the country’s hillsides, Monos suggests that even if the guerrilla fighters flee the untamed jungle, the rest of the country doesn’t offer an escape. Staggeringly gorgeous and deeply lucid, Monos is an intoxicating descent into tactile wilderness and raw emotions that’s at once jagged and lyrical, brutal and beautiful, rageful and abstract, and all together entirely singular.