Monos is a film that takes place entirely amid the fog of war. We're never quite sure where we are precisely, nor what anybody on screen is really fighting for. The Brazilian writer-director Alejandro Landes strands us up above the cloud line in a mountainous region of South America, at some point in the late 20th/early 21st century, with a battalion of child soldiers whose names - Rambo, Bigfoot, Boom Boom, Smurf - are only just less evocative than their prematurely aged, lived-in faces. Whose side they're on is a moot point, and whether they're due to see any action a question mark; they have a milk cow they've been told to look after, and an American doctor they seem to be holding hostage, but are otherwise left to their own devices. So they do what kids do: make out, mess around, smash shit up. As responsible adults, you and I notice that they're pushing at their boundaries with guns in their hands and ants in their pants, and that this is a potentially lethal combination. By the time the cow has copped a stray bullet, one of the kids has been buried in a pit by way of punishment, and the gang's leader has shot himself - all this within the first twenty minutes - we've been led to the conclusion the film's subjects are bombshells waiting to go off, killers or casualties in waiting. God help them. God help anyone who stumbles across them.
The precedent most reviewers have cited when describing Monos has been Lord of the Flies, yet as it plays out in the mud and chill winds, Landes' film most often resembles a fiendish cross between an outward bound course and some E4 reality show pitch: stick a bunch of horny, distractible kids on a hillside, set the cameras rolling, then stand well back. A certain thread of logic runs through the early scenes. After the leader, Wolf (Julian Geraldo), commits hara-kiri, his second-in-command takes over; after the cow is shot, the youngsters cook its flesh for food. Increasingly, however, matters take a turn for the surreal, if not outright crazed. There's a headscratcher of a radio exchange in which the tearful doctor (Julianne Nicholson) repeatedly asks the (coded?) question "Which part of mummy makes daddy frown?"; mushrooms are found growing in the departed bovine's pats, and enthusiastically consumed, with the expected effects; and there are jolting lurches besides, into tropical jungles, primal rituals, night-vision sorties; moments of connection and conciliation are undone by sudden ruptures. You might start to suspect Landes is himself messing around - screwing with the audience's heads, striving to make an impression by making us frown in bewilderment - were it not for the remarkable level of control he establishes over the frame. It isn't just that fog, actual and symbolic, which envelopes us; the year's most immersive sound design ensures we, too, are swept down river or beset by bees, as the characters are at various points. Such immediacy prevents any metaphorical drift, though strange and unique choices rise out of the mist for us to ponder: one kid sits mesmerised before a TV documentary about the manufacture of gummy bears in Germany. Why gummy bears? Why Germany? Is Landes jolting us first-world viewers with a reminder there are very different kinds of childhood?
Like many of the best movies - and many of the most memorable dreams (and nightmares) - whole swathes of Monos are left open to interpretation. (Starting with the title, which is the collective name the children adopt: my Portuguese-to-English dictionary tells me that monos means household goods. Do these would-be freedom fighters see themselves as something to aspire towards? Or something disposable, easily replaced?) Landes wouldn't be the first filmmaker to try and make a name for himself with a coming-of-age movie: his trick is to defamiliarise it by relocating its action to especially harsh, remote climes where fitting in is less of an issue than making it through the day. Monos would work well as a pacifist parable, seeing as our primary takehome is that kids aren't great in a wartime context, prone either to blasting away indiscriminately, or - as los monos generally are - being outthought and outflanked. Mostly, I think Landes was drawn to this story for the opportunities it affords him to rustle up moments of pure cinema, which couldn't be arrived at in any other medium: you won't easily forget the close-ups of the kids as they're drilled into an agitated frenzy by their stunted commander (physique of an iron man, stature of Warwick Davis), while Mica Levi's extraordinary score goes into electronic overdrive. In such sequences as an attack on a boat headed upriver, and the Nicholson character's escape bids, we see a filmmaker - not unlike Landes' Colombian neighbour Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent, Birds of Passage) - venturing far beyond the safety of the soundstage and asking us to hold on while he takes a running jump into the unknown. I have a feeling we're going to see a lot more from Landes in the years ahead, and also that his insurance premiums are about to go up something rotten.
Monos is now playing in selected cinemas.