Starring Julianne Nicholson. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
Like Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), a woman held hostage in an unspecified Latin-American jungle, we are mostly in the dark throughout the perplexing and roundly unnerving Monos.
The title refers to the monkeys that scurry in dense green foliage, but it just as aptly refers to the eight teenage guerillas holding the freckled American, whom they call “Doctora”, as hostage for unknown purposes. And there’s no Sherlock Homes to explain it to Dr. Watson, or to us.
These ornery girls and boys have names like Wolf, Bigfoot, Smurf, and Boom Boom, and the most macho one, called Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), is of undetermined gender. The whole group is rather unformed, and the only other adult in their orbit is a tiny man called the Messenger (real-life former insurgent Wilson Salazar), although his only message seems to be that childhood is over. During the day they drill and shoot, again without a stated mission, and at other times do what teenagers do. Under pressure, they are capable of cruelty, tenderness, capriciousness, and instant betrayal.
The setup, as every reviewer has noted, strongly parallels Lord of the Flies, in that it skips any notion of ideology or national identity in order to look at tribal instincts in their basest form. But writer-director Alejandro Landes, a Brazilian with Colombian heritage, shot Monos in his parents’ country, with a story that echoes the particulars of FARC and other groups that were long part of the chaos gripping a land of drug cartels, paramilitary groups, and factional uprisings.
Landes hints at other specifics, involving race, class, and gender. But it’s hard to parse much of this since the story is buried in a surfeit of sensationalistic style that makes the film feel more like a 100-minute trailer—an impressive one, to be sure—than a coherent movie. His immersive approach (which also includes elements of Apocalypse Now, Predator, and The Blair Witch Project) conveys an unusually grim nightmare, but it’s unclear what viewers can do with that when it’s over.