Monos is a surprising film, which is perhaps the best thing an arthouse film can be. The film begins atop a monolithic yet picturesque mountain towering above an infinite stretch of South American forest. It’s imposing, impressive – yet, initially at least, familiar. I watched the ‘Monos’ – a crew of rebel soldiers, really just boys and girls – as they played soccer and underwent training drills and taunted their captive, ‘Doctora’ (Julianne Nicholson), and felt a pang of déjà vu. It wasn’t that the setting or the story seemed familiar, but I nonetheless settled in expecting the docile rhythms that such films tend to assume: melancholic, reflective, distancing.
Director Alejandro Landes (helming only his second feature) had other ideas. It soon became clear that there was a different kind of energy impelling Monos, a spark realised in the camera’s dizzying proximity to his players or an astoundingly unconventional editing rhythm. Said players – with names like Rambo, Smurf, Lady and Wolf – aren’t homogenised, animalistic creatures but real humans, written and executed with concrete characterisation too often lacking in films relying on inexperienced actors.
The storyline isn’t entirely original. As these soldiers clash with their superiors and one another, it resembles Lord of the Flies (a reference underlined with the none-too-subtle appearance of a pig’s head on a stick late in the piece). When they migrate from their mountaintop retreat to a thickly humid rainforest hideout, the sinuous river calls Heart of Darkness and its clearest cinematic link, Apocalypse Now. Although Landes pays tribute to the latter (particularly in a hallucinatory sojourn that’s engulfed by unexpected warfare), the aesthetic here oddly recalled Apichatpong Weerasethakul more than anyone else.
Not that Monos has the same intoxicating, oneiric feel of Joe’s work. No, what recalled Weerasethakul was the confidence with which Landes cuts from one immense image to another without undermining the coherency of his film. Too many directors emphasising style do so at the expense of the film itself, finding individually powerful images that overwhelm their narrative or tone. Landes – thanks presumably in no small part to the contributions of his editors, Ted Guard, Yorgos Mavropsaridis and Santiago Otheguy – is able to move between such images in a way that’s intuitive and immediately engaging. We don’t always necessarily understand where we’ve taken, but he’s inculcated such confidence in his audience that we’re not thrown out of the proceedings.
It helps that there’s a fully-fledged story to tell. Too often, middling arthouse films prioritise aesthetic over storyline to their detriment. I think great films can be entirely plotless, but there needs to be a spine of meaning or plotlessness can become pointlessness. Monos often obscures the particulars of its narrative, but we’re never left with the impression that this is because of an ill-formed or incomplete screenplay.
Credit, too, must be given to the score, crafted by the ever-impressive Mica Levi (known for Under the Skin and Jackie, if the name doesn’t ring a bell). Though not as overtly as experimental as those scores – it often offers up the kind of operatic grandeur who’d expect to accompany such sweeping imagery – Levi’s occasional bursts of discordant electronica grant Monos a transcendent weirdness that endures throughout. Through and through, this is a memorable, surprising and consistently ambitious example of modern cinema.