“Monos” takes place in the dense jungles and foggy mountaintops of northern Colombia, but it may as well be another planet. Director Alejandro Landes’ thrilling survivalist saga tracks a dysfunctional group of young militants as they traipse through perilous terrain, engaging in savage behavior while toying with their mortified American hostage (Julianne Nicholson), but they never reveal their motivations. Equal parts “Lord of the Flies” and “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” Landes’ third feature distills guerrilla warfare into sheer anarchy.
By stripping away the sociopolitical context, “Monos” provides a window into power-hungry mayhem on the fringes of society that could happen anytime, anywhere — but depicts its hectic showdowns with a you-are-there intensity that could only take place in the present. Aided by “Under the Skin” composer Mica Levi’s thunderous score, Landes delivers a suspenseful encapsulation of alienated youth enmeshed in pointless battles that can only lead to further destruction.
The movie begins with one of the strangest training montages caught on film, as the titular group of teen rebels engage in tense fitness exercises at the behest of a petite overlord. Circling a vast green cliff surrounded by cloudy streams, the group receives its commands in shouted declarations of the expectations thrust on them by an enigmatic entity called “The Organization.” Nothing about the misadventures that follow clarify the origins or intent of The Organization, but they’re irrelevant to its young members, who mainly seem to embrace their environment as an excuse to party.
It doesn’t take long for Landes to craft a haunting setting, as the Monos roam the countryside while keeping their terrified hostage at bay, seemingly unbothered by their lack of motives. At night, they run amok by the fire and strap glow sticks to their cow, cackling and hollering with primal conviction. But by the next morning, reality sets in: The cow’s dead, and soon after, one of the young fighters joins it. From there, “Monos” tracks the gradual progression into complete disarray as the group’s rickety power structure crumbles, one step at a time.
Landes, who wrote the script with Argentinean filmmaker Alexis Dos Santos, builds a grimy world dominated by the fantasy that its dangerous young inhabitants have everything under control. Even their code names reveal the extent to which they’ve buried themselves in perilous role playing: There’s Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), Smurf (Deiby Rueda), Wolf (Julián Giraldo), Boom-Boom (Sneider Castro), and Dog (Paul Cubides). Many of their personalities come and go as various members of the faction jockey for leadership, including the domineering Bigfoot (Moises Arías, “Ender’s Game”), and Lady (Karen Quintero). “Monos” falls short of giving these 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.
In the midst of it all, Nicholson — identified for the bulk of the story only as “Doctora” — intermittently tolerates her captors and concocts a series of desperate plans to escape. As the sole adult at the center of a merciless child cult, Nicholson brings a jittery, unnerving quality to her character as she attempts to communicate with her captors and navigate a way out.
But the jungle isn’t so sympathetic. While “Monos” crafts an involving atmosphere of anarchy and dread in its first half, it catapults to new heights of suspense as its characters contend with the elements. Vicious mosquitos and surprise mudslides prove that no matter how much the Monos crave their surroundings, they’re boxed into it, anyway. At times, the movie pitches into a dreamlike aura that emphasizes just how much these pint-sized commandos have allowed the mountain to devour their lives. In one prolonged sequence, a trio of characters trip on mushrooms, wandering the wilderness uncertain if they’ve stumbled into a wonderland or slipped into a surrealistic hell.
Cinematographer Jasper Wolf’s evocative imagery suggests it might be both. The movie oscillates from disturbing closeups of mud-caked faces to sprawling shots of jungle greenery that stretches on for an eternity. While the Monos are forced to move as unseen troops close in, they’re never too far from another setup; ultimately, the only factor guaranteed to disrupt their antics comes from their own dysfunction. Once “Monos” gets there, Landes ratchets the tension with a series of violent showdowns as Levi’s operatic score takes off. However, even these more dramatic exchanges leave room for pregnant pauses, with the camera drifting through jungle scenery long after the devastation has concluded, as if only nature has the armor to survive such pointless warfare.
As its wannabe utopia slides into chaos, “Monos” speeds 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 the 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.
“Monos” premiered in the World Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.