Rating: (3 stars)
The violent, beautiful and powerfully watchable movie “Monos” — Spanish for monkeys — takes its title from the code name used by a group of teenage guerrillas who, on a filthy, mud-soaked Colombian mountaintop, have been tasked with guarding an American hostage. Julianne Nicholson, the actress who plays her, looks as if she hasn’t seen a hot shower for months, as do the actors portraying her captors.
The coed cadre of eight child soldiers — nicknamed Bigfoot, Rambo, Swede, Smurf, Dog, Wolf, Boom Boom and Lady — are frighteningly capable, given that they receive only periodic training and scant supervision from a little person on a horse (Wilson Salazar) who arrives every so often to deliver supplies (including, in one instance, a commandeered milk cow named Shakira) and to grant approval or disapproval of sexual liaisons. The film’s subtitles call them “partnerships,” but the Spanish word the characters use, in a parody of societal ritual, is “matrimonio.”
Bigfoot, who assumes leadership of the commando unit after a shift in power that leaves Shakira dead — along with one of Bigfoot’s colleagues — is played by Moises Arias, looking far scarier than he ever did as Rico on Disney’s “Hannah Montana.” The Monos have a wild-child ethos to begin with, but as they are increasingly left to their own devices, after a gun battle with government forces necessitates their relocation to the fly-infested jungle, the film takes on a far more harrowing, “Lord of the Flies” energy. There is even a shot of a pig’s head mounted on a stake, making the evocation of that 1963 film, and the 1954 novel on which it’s based, explicit.
There are escape attempts, murder and a descent into more squalor, suggesting that, as with William Golding’s “Flies,” filmmaker Alejandro Landes is delivering an allegorical message of some sort. But what that message may be, like the humid, foggy atmosphere that hangs over so much of the film, is less than crystal clear. Kids — or society — run amok? The callousness of war? The law of unintended consequences, which is the only thing that plays out in vivid, often blood-spattered clarity? Or maybe it’s the impossibility of redemption. When the ironically named Rambo tries to run away in an attempt to return to a normal life, and his former comrades come hunting for him, hope seems a very foreign concept indeed.
There is nothing terribly specific about the circumstances of the story. The Monos fight on the side of a rebel group called the Organization, but what they are fighting for is unknown.
That’s frustrating, as is the ambiguity of what we are meant to take away from all the misery and callousness on display in “Monos.” That doesn’t mean it isn’t good, or mesmerizing. It’s both, if also tempered by a horror that feels more like a dull, throbbing ache than a sharp recognition of something — perhaps ourselves?
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains violence, strong language, some sexuality, brief nudity and drug use. In Spanish and some English with subtitles. 102 minutes.