Not everything in a film has to have meaning. But when you are watching pubescent teenagers butchering each other and a cow in the name of a nameless military operation for nearly a film’s entire runtime, you begin to look for an explanation. Particularly when there is a sense of thrill to what they're doing and a cinematographic flair that it’s conveyed by. Beau Travail meets Larry Clark. We are never in doubt that Monos is engaging but we might just wonder at what cost.
In the film’s opening, where the conditions are mysterious and the characters’ demeanours are playful and cruel, director Alejandro Landes runs the risk of hypnotising the audience with style instead of substance. The style of the film’s cinematography could be described as muscular, or visceral, or another word that hopes to fill a lack between written language and film language. As the choreographed cruelty continues, there's a lingering worry that the brutality could just be servicing a message about fascism, or how power corrupts the spirit, or other easy-to-depict justifications for poetic contortions of adolescent bodies. The seductive portrayal of evil might be as bad as the evil itself and that would not be the explanation we were looking for.
But Landes deliberately makes a decision to hold back a time, place, reason for the struggle that takes place as the unit of teenagers scramble to cling on to all they own: guns and machetes, silly code names (Bigfoot, Smurf, Rambo), a middle-aged American woman who is their hostage. Fortunately, the lack of explanation is a tribute to the film’s judgement rather than laziness or pretentiousness. The fact that Landes’ camera confronts his subjects as both objects of sex and terror is sensitive to the binary of growing up and proximity to death. These might be child soldiers but they are still children. The fact that their conflict is nameless only plunges us deeper into its total upheaval of their spirit.
The more Monos spirals and swirls out of control, into the undergrowth and then the jungle and then underwater, the more meaning it acquires. The more intense, the more charged with excitement, the more we palpably feel the journey into the heart of darkness and the tragedy of it. Landes' film is a lesson that the conventional engine of excitement in cinema does not need to be a counterpoint to insight, and paradoxically slowness is not always commensurate to reflection. The greater the thrills Monos gives, the further it moves from exploitation and the closer to compassion and heartbreak. That's to say, it reminds us we're alive but that others do not have that luxury.
— Theo Macdonald