‘Monos’ Review: Colombia Set Epic Is Nail-Biting Cinema At Its Finest

Julianne Nicholson and ensemble in "Monos." (CR: NEON).
Set in the mountains and rivers of Colombia, Monos captures the eye with its visual scope but also grabs us with its surprising sense of claustrophobia. A story that lives and breathes pure cinema, Monos is simply hard to put into words.

Directed and co-penned by Alejandro Landes, Monos centers on teenage rebels who are part of a military unit dubbed The Organization. They are tasked with keeping an  American prisoner whom they call “Doctora” (Julianne Nicholson) within their clutches, and their responsibilities are upped when their commander (Wilson Salazar, a former FARC soldier) also gives them a cow for safe keeping.

Living in the desolate mountains (part of the feature was shot in Chingaza), the group members begin the story feeling like a focused and dedicated unit. These are, however, hormonal youths, and recklessness, along with sexual exploration, may be in the offing. With names like Wolf (Julian Giraldo), Lady (Karen Quintero), Swede (Laura Castrillón), Bigfoot (Ender Games’ Moisés Arias) and Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), Monos also has faint echoes of a straight ahead film noir (or even Reservoir Dogs). Landes’ influences, however, are quite expansive, as Lord of the Flies, Joseph Conrad’s seminal novel Heart of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now also comes to mind.

Julianne Nicholson and members of ensemble in “Monos.” (CR: NEON)

Monos does not employ homage as a crutch, but instead it forges a new road for exploration. Landes does a great job of fleshing out each of the individual guerillas into full scale human beings, and it’s understandable to actually root for Rambo’s gradual fracture from the group as the narrative progresses.

Doctora’s bond with the teens, especially with Swede, may be either seen as a symptom of Stockholm Syndrome or as a means to an end. Will Doctora ultimately try to escape from this low level rung of The Organization, or will she play her cards up until the very end and remain with the unit?

Moises Arias in “Monos.” (CR: NEON)

Landes grew up in Colombia, and casting non-actors (Nicholson and Arias are the only experienced thesps) gives a touch of neorealism to the proceedings. Instead of turning Monos into a politically charged film about the social climate of Colombia, Landes wisely transforms Monos into a universal story of survival at whatever cost. Having the young actors prepare for the film via an intense boot camp and also having the cast and crew live in the elements during production (they spent four weeks existing in the jungle) also adds to the film’s high level of authenticity. Add to that the arresting compositions of cinematographer Jasper Wolf (Open Seas) and an immersive score from Mica Levi (Jackie), Landes delivers a sublime moviegoing experience.

The picture, on a visceral level, is also a nail-biter, as there are very few moments where one can actually take a breather and check out of the narrative. Don’t expect beautiful, lingering shots of the Samana River or extended pillow shots of northern Columbia in Monos. Landes, along with his cast and crew, don’t have the time for us to appreciate Monos as a static work of art. Rather, the narrative engages us on every level, and the climactic moment of Monos, at least from this reviewer’s perspective, is a stunner.

With the critical success of Monos and its impressively rendered epic scale, it’s safe to say Landes will probably get his share of attention from Hollywood. While it would be interesting to see how Landes’ personal and unique stylings would fit into the studio system, I’m hoping the spirit of the jungle, in all its unpredictability and humanity, continues to call his name. Monos is a rarefied achievement of popcorn entertainment and uncompromising storytelling, and hopefully this picture gets its proper due come awards season.

Rating 5 out of 5.

Monos hits theaters September 13. To listen to my review of Monos, check out the latest episode of CinemAddicts:

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