(NOTE: An abridged version of this review was originally published here.)
** (out of 4)
The final shot of Alejandro Landes’ Monos encapsulates everything that the film could have been but isn’t. A group of military troops have just flown over a jungle in Colombia and rescued Rambo (Sofía Buenaventura), a former child soldier in a FARC-esque guerrilla movement called “The Organization.” As the group prepares to land in an unnamed city, the camera pans to Rambo, who turns and looks at the audience with a pleading, teary stare.
In many ways, Rambo’s traumatized expression reflects the terrible things he’s been through. Up until this final shot, he and several other child guerrillas (played by Moisés Arias, Julián Giraldo, Karen Quintero, Laura Castrillón, Deiby Rueda, Esneider Castro, and Paul Cubides) have lived in near-total isolation in the Colombian wilderness. Periodically, a messenger (Wilson Salazar) from The Organization comes by to train them and give them orders from the higher-ups. Otherwise, these teenagers’ main job is to watch over an American hostage they call “Doctora” (Julianne Nicholson).
As it moves forward, Monos turns into a bleak and atmospheric depiction of how depraved life in a war zone can become. The teenage guerrillas wield assault rifles with the excitement of an infant playing with new toys, and the more aggressive among them have no problem with killing and torturing innocent people. Although she initially seems helpless, moreover, even Doctora ends up committing barbaric acts in her desperate attempts to escape captivity.
Rambo’s haunted stare, in short, testifies to Monos’ main goal: showing how warfare and isolation suck the humanity out of people. But what’s ironic is that the film engages in the same dehumanization it implicitly condemns. Even as we’re made to react with shock at The Organization’s impersonality, Landes himself refuses to give his characters anything resembling individuality. In his hands, Doctora and the teenage guerrillas become mere symbols, empty vehicles for conveying his abstract message about human cruelty.
You could argue, to be sure, that this lack of character development is actually a good thing. In depersonalizing his characters, Landes could simply be trying to illustrate how The Organization depersonalizes its members. As Eric Kohn put it over at IndieWire, “‘Monos falls short of giving…[its] rambunctious protagonists much in the way of individual identities, but that syncs with the idea that they’ve given themselves over to a dubious cause.”
Kohn’s idea isn’t necessarily invalid, but it proves somewhat difficult to square with the film’s cinematography. While Monos does contain subjective camera shots, its camerawork is generally defined by a noticeable detachment. In many scenes – particularly ones featuring violence – the camera observes the action from a distance, as though to embody the dispassionate perspective of an omniscient, third-party observer.
This will sound handwavy, but when you watch this cinematography, you don’t get the sense that it’s simply mimicking the Organization’s depersonalization. In adopting a detached perspective – even during violent scenes – the camera seems to make a particular effort to keep the characters at a distance, as though, independent of the Organization, it itself didn’t care that much about the characters’ individuality, either. In this way, the camera refutes the idea that Landes merely wants to illustrate the Organization’s depersonalization, casting him instead as a hypocrite who actively dehumanizes his characters for his own ends.
Ultimately, Monos’ cinematography also turns out to be at the root of the film’s other major problem. Rambo’s haunted expression, in a sense, is Monos’ version of “the horror,” Colonel Kurtz’s famous last words in Apocalypse Now. Yet the film’s visuals arguably detract from its desire to make you think about and appreciate such dark themes. Throughout the film, in other words, Wolf’s camerawork is technically dazzling in a way that sits poorly with the narrative’s grisliness.
The clearest illustration of this problem occurs in two adjacent scenes that appear around halfway into the film. In the first, the guerrillas have decided to relocate from a hideout in a mountain cave to a campsite in the jungle. The second scene takes place after they’ve relocated: as the guerrillas are off playing in a river, Doctora grabs some of their supplies and tries to make an escape.
Stylistically speaking, what stands out about these two scenes is their showiness. By making the transition between these scenes the opening of a curtain at the cave’s entrance, Landes melds the two scenes into an apparent, attention-grabbing long take – even though he arguably has no narrative-based reason for needing to do so. In a similarly frivolous display of technical prowess, the camera smoothly tracks Doctora’s movements through the entire sequence, making it seem as though she walked out of the cave and proceeded to make her jungle escape immediately thereafter.
Skillful as it may be, the problem with this cinematography is that its elegance is both superfluous and distracting. In a review that I wrote two years ago for The Revenant, I noted that the film’s cinematography is “the kind of sleekness that revels in its cleverness, even at the expense of capturing the [decidedly dark] mood of the story.” Coincidentally – or perhaps not, since both The Revenant and Monos are would-be auteurist films about human cruelty – those words could just as easily apply to the camerawork in Monos.
In public, Landes hasn’t been shy about his grand ambitions for Monos. To a Colombian newspaper, he noted that his film “asks us questions about who we are as a species. Who are we? Where are we going?” As though to give his film a greater cultural pedigree, moreover, he has also cited Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as inspirations for his film.
Despite its high aspirations, however, Monos is ultimately undermined by two major problems. Its treatment of characters is depersonalizing, to the point that it’s hard to chalk this up to a simple desire to illustrate how the film’s antagonists operate. And in featuring stylish cinematography, the film is ironically more likely to leave you in unquestioning awe – “Wow, that was such a beautiful movie!” – than in the mood to reflect on Landes’ grim themes. If this film seeks to be a cinematic Lord of the Flies, in short, its showiness and intellectual hypocrisy make it something far, far less in practice.
Starring: Julianne Nicholson, Moisés Arias, Sofía Buenaventura, Julián Giraldo, Karen Quintero, Laura Castrillón, Deiby Rueda, Esneider Castro
Running Time: 105 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for violence, language, some sexual content and drug use.”
Produced by: Alejandro Landes, Fernando Epstein, Santiago Zapata, Cristina Landes
Written by: Alejandro Landes, Alexis Dos Santos
Directed by: Alejandro Landes