‘Lord of the Flies’ meets machine guns in ‘Monos’

Scott Powell

At first glance, the nightmare-scape world of Alejandro Landes’s “Monos” looks nothing like our own.

Set atop a remote mountain in Latin America, teenagers are given intense training in the art of guerilla warfare by day (learning how to load and shoot machine guns, intimidate hostages and engage in hand-to-hand combat), and left to roam free (still armed with these deadly skills and weapons) by night.

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It’s a surefire recipe for grizzly chaos: something we in our civilized world, where any problem can be solved with a simple hashtag tacked onto the end of an impassioned Twitter post, could hardly conceive of.

That is, so long as we don’t turn on the news. Or go outside. Or wake up in the morning.

While the society depicted in “Monos” might be a step grimmer and more disorganized than our own, the psychological forces at work inside of it, that have plunged it into the disorder it is in, are dishearteningly similar.

The story takes place on top of an isolated Latin American mountain in the midst of a war. Who exactly is fighting in the war or what the war is about, well, no one really knows: not the audience and not the crew of eight teenage soldiers who have been carted off to this isolated mountaintop to receive the military training necessary to fight in it. 

While the society depicted in “Monos” might be a step grimmer and more disorganized than our own, the psychological forces at work inside of it, that have plunged it into the disorder it is in, are dishearteningly similar.

This ambiguous setup gives the film an eerie, fatalistic tone right from the get-go and is one of the keys to “Monos’” brilliance. This isn’t your traditional “Hunger Games”-esque teenage dystopian drama. The kind where the youth of totalitarianism must band together to defeat evil Dr. Government and his absurd methods of organizing humanity according to what kind of soup people like, or some equally ridiculous, arbitrary criteria.

“Monos” is something much deeper. These children are not your passionate, wisened revolutionaries. They are dark, savage, unforgiving monsters, just as twisted and corrupt as the cruel world they have been raised in.

It’s not a pretty picture nor is it a conception of youth that we in America are accustomed to. We like to think of our children as fearless whippersnappers who possess all the power and wisdom necessary to fix the problems that plague this boring, terrible adult world.

That is until they grow up, and we realize that they’re just as clueless and confused as we are about what in our world truly needs fixing and what we can actually do to fix it.

The villain in “Monos” is not something that we can distinguish or develop a plan of attack against; it’s something that simply exists. The villain is a general sense of unease that our human powers of logic cannot make sense out of. This antagonist isn’t threatening because it’s bigger than these kids; it’s threatening because it is these kids.

 It is something that neither they nor the adults in the world around them are aware of, which in turn makes them slaves to it. These children don’t just passively exist in a chaotic world; they revel in it and seek to multiply it. They actively choose to make the world a crazier place.

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Whether this desire is a product of their own juvenile instincts or the violent ideology that has been taught to them by the adult world is of little importance. Indeed, it’s of no importance whatsoever. The film doesn’t attempt to take any moral stance on the issue. It simply presents this instinctual desire for disorder as it is, regardless of how uncomfortable that may be or how much it may contradict what we want to see when we go to the movies.

These children are not your passionate, wisened revolutionaries. They are dark, savage, unforgiving monsters, just as twisted and corrupt as the cruel world they have been raised in.

The power of this theme is only intensified by “Monos’” pitch perfect visuals. The film’s cinematography is nothing short of stunning. The bare, shadowy mountainscapes that make up the first half of the film are breathtaking and seem to almost shrink the audience down to the size of the film’s characters.

The vastness of the landscape serves as a sublime reminder to the audience that, no matter how old or big or logical, in comparison with the enormous world we exist in, we are still no larger or more knowledgeable than these children.

This focus on the largeness of the world is then contrasted with the confined, cinema verite techniques employed for the jungle sequences during the second half of the film. These techniques shift the focus from the instinctual sense of terror we feel toward the world at large to the actions we take in response to that raw sense of fear and foreboding. The beautiful camerawork perfectly complements the story being told.

“Monos” is a stark, bloody, expressionistic rendering of the modern teenage psyche. Angst is no longer contained to petty diary entries or after-school brawls, but manifests itself in savage and sometimes even deadly ways. It’s a bleak portrait of the consequences that ensue when society refocuses its attention on obliterating all who oppose its will, rather than understanding of what its will truly is and why that will is valuable and worthy of protection.

Scotty Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.