The final shot of Alejandro Landes’ Monos encapsulates everything that the film could have been but isn’t. A group of military troops have just flown over a jungle in Colombia and rescued Rambo (Sofía Buenaventura), a former child soldier in a FARC-esque guerrilla movement called “The Organization.” As the group prepares to land in an unnamed city, the camera pans to Rambo, who turns and looks at the audience with a pleading, teary stare.
In many ways, Rambo’s traumatized expression reflects the terrible things he’s been through. Up until this final shot, he and several other child guerrillas (played by Moisés Arias, Julián Giraldo, Karen Quintero, Laura Castrillón, Deiby Rueda, Esneider Castro, and Paul Cubides) have lived in near-total isolation in the Colombian wilderness. Periodically, a messenger (Wilson Salazar) from The Organization comes by to train them and give them orders from the higher-ups. Otherwise, these teenagers’ main job is to watch over an American hostage they call “Doctora” (Julianne Nicholson).
As it moves forward, Monos turns into a bleak and atmospheric depiction of how depraved life in a war zone can become. The teenage guerrillas wield assault rifles with the excitement of an infant playing with new toys, and the more aggressive among them have no problem with killing and torturing innocent people. Although she initially seems helpless, moreover, even Doctora ends up committing barbaric acts in her desperate attempts to escape captivity.
Rambo’s haunted stare, in short, testifies to Monos’ main goal: showing how warfare and isolation suck the humanity out of people. But what’s ironic is that the film engages in the same dehumanization it implicitly condemns. Even as we’re made to react with shock at The Organization’s impersonality, Landes himself refuses to give any of his characters anything resembling individuality. In his hands, Doctora and the teenage guerrillas become mere symbols, empty vehicles for conveying his abstract message about human cruelty.
At times, moreover, Landes’ indifference towards his characters manifests itself in the film’s cinematography. While cinematographer Jasper Wolf does use subjective shots, he shoots many of the most dramatic scenes from a more dispassionate third-party perspective. In depicting events from such a detached viewpoint, the camera embodies – and reinforces – the narrative’s impersonal and hypocritically dehumanizing attitude.
Ultimately, it turns out that Wolf’s cinematography is also at the root of the other major problem with Monos. Rambo’s haunted expression, in a sense, is Monos’ version of “the horror,” Colonel Kurtz’s famous last words in Apocalypse Now. Yet the film’s visuals detract attention from these dark themes. Elegant to a fault, Wolf’s camerawork makes use of technically dazzling long takes and scrupulously graceful movements that sit poorly with the narrative’s grisliness.
Ever since its premiere at Sundance this past January, critics have praised Monos for its stylistic craftsmanship. But while the film certainly is exquisitely made, its craftsmanship arguably undercuts Landes’ efforts to highlight warfare’s “horrors.” Instead of reflecting on what Landes wants to say about human nature, you’ll more likely leave Monos thinking, “Wow, that was such a beautiful movie!” If this film aspires to be a cinematic Lord of the Flies, its showiness and intellectual hypocrisy make it something far less in practice.