The city of Bonn, resting along the Rhine river in western Germany, is the birthplace of two very different cultural icons: Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the great composers of his era, and Haribo gummy bears, idiosyncratically headquartered amidst high-end clothing and jewelry stores in the Am Neutor shopping strip. Beau monde, meet sugar rush.
This month’s Monos, a ferocious action drama from Colombian-Ecuadorian filmmaker Alejandro Landes, unexpectedly plops this incongruous bit of trivia in the heat of its climax. The dark fantasy finds eight child soldiers stationed among unnamed Latin-American mountaintops where they spend their days training for combat in an obscure conflict with similarly obscure intentions. It’s never clear who the kids are fighting, or why. The clearest detail the film gives is the bizarre connection between the composer of “Symphony No. 9” and the candymaker responsible for Gold Bears, Cruise Mix, and Drama Llamas. It’s Landes’ parting jape at civilization in an altogether uncivilized narrative.
Think of Monos as the tripped-out intersection where Lord of the Flies, Embrace of the Serpent, Apocalypse Now, and Aguirre, the Wrath of God collide with mushrooms and milk cows, two of the film’s other sharply drawn details. The squad, called the “monos” (monkeys) for their mischievous, rowdy, and unpredictable behavior, are given new purpose after supportive locals lend them a cow named Shakira.
“Guarding Shakira is as important to the Organization as the security of our prisoner of war,” barks the Messenger (Wilson Salazar), the soldiers’ diminutive commander. The prisoner is Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), referred to as Doctora, an American woman who teeters back and forth between Stockholm syndrome and feral desperation; at times she’s just part of the crew, at others possessed by a powerful need to escape her teenage captors.
She has that in common with Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), Landes’ protagonist. Over the course of Monos, he grows disillusioned with the Organization, the shady outfit on whose behalf he and his companions — Lady (Karen Quintero), Smurf (Deiby Rueda), Wolf (Julián Giraldo), Boom-Boom (Sneider Castro), Bigfoot (Moises Arías, yes, of Hannah Montana fame), Swede (Laura Castrillón), and Dog (Paul Cubides) — are prepared to do battle. Maybe it’s the waiting. Rambo and the gang do a whole lot of nothing throughout the movie’s first 20 minutes: They play blindfolded fútbol (which, in retrospect, is entirely awesome), do drills and inspections at Messenger’s behest, record pseudo-propaganda videos starring Doctora, and recklessly discharge rifles into the mountain mist out of carnal desire. They’re restless.
Then Dog accidentally shoots the cow Bad as things are for them to start, they get even worse, as Bigfoot reveals himself as a bloodthirsty firecracker who’s hungry for power, and Wolf and Messenger morph into violent men with goals. If the isolation and banality of the company’s life isn’t enough reason for Rambo to flee, the change in leadership suffices. Under Messenger, the monos function as a surrogate family, a hogwash characterization for a more disciplined unit. Bigfoot’s reign is marked by brute authoritarianism, and so Rambo, like Doctora, bides his time and searches for opportunities to make a break for it.
The era of the Bigfoot administration is documented through sheens of sweat and streaks of dirt by cinematographer Jasper Wolf; his camerawork is experiential, putting viewers in the fray as the gang slowly mold themselves after Bigfoot’s example, find themselves caught in a firefight, eat unauthorized fungi that sets them flying higher than kites, and increasingly take after their nom de guerre. The company Landes keeps his audience in qualifies as dangerous, certainly, but even more so is the environment. Sticky daytime heat gives way to dusks utterly blanketed by mosquitoes; conditions shuffle from clear skies to torrential downpours, filmed as an overwhelming threat to Doctora’s survival rivaling the monos themselves. Wolf shoots crashing waves like an ambush party sneaking up on her in dead of night. When night lifts, sweltering haze hanging in front of the lens adds another layer of natural oppression to the movie’s sustained sense of peril.
When Rambo rejects his old family for a new one, Monos’ atmosphere shifts. Landes treats the mercy of the real world as a rare commodity. When a family in a nearby village lend Rambo their charity, they offer him a peaceful life alternative that’s divorced from civilization but nonetheless civilized: They have electricity, and with electricity comes television.
What could cast a starker contrast to Bigfoot’s and the Organization’s barbarism than the traditionally domestic sight of mom, dad, and the kids huddled together on the sofa, congregating around the TV, the campfire’s modern day replacement? The freedom affords sophistication in the form of a documentary about Beethoven. For a brief moment, we see a glimmer of what cultured normalcy looks like, but very brief; no sooner is Beethoven mentioned than the topic changes to gummy bears, described by the documentary narrator as the more popular of the two.
It’s an absurd, out-of-left-field needle drop. True, neither Rambo nor the family bats an eye at the bizarre leap from classical music to candy, but in taking that leap, Landes makes a mockery of so-called civilized life; television is a gateway to knowledge, but as hypnotic as Bigfoot’s ruthless leadership is, so too is junk TV. Rambo and his newfound surrogate family stare blankly at the screen, unresponsive to fun facts about the ins and outs of gummy bear production. (They must be hard enough to keep their shape, but also soft enough to chew!) Dad eventually shuts the tube off and takes the kids to bed, but it’s too late: Their viewing choice’s fluffy uselessness has single-handedly shattered civilization’s mirage.
Monos then goes several steps further, killing characters and emparking the monos on a warpath, grunting into the camera as they hunt for Rambo. There’s no civilization to be found here — not in the family’s happy home, not in the jungle, and not in the mountains, where Wolf captures shot after ominous shot of clouds looming above, an overcast reminder of man’s insignificance against the backdrop of nature. Whether socio-political struggles or confectionary dominance, it makes no odds to the vast, untamed landscapes of Monos: Civilization’s a joke, and only Landes gets it.
Monos is out now in limited release.