Monkey See War, Monkey Do War – Monos

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but my all-time favorite movie is Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Apart from the stark sense of realism that was Kubrick’s trademark, the performances of Matthew Modine, Vincent D’Onofrio, and the late great R. Lee Ermey provided the perfect capsule of how the fog of war and military conditioning in general can strip a man of his very humanity, replacing even the most basic levels of empathy with a thirst for blood that basically can’t be quenched, even for someone like Modine’s Joker, whose sense of humor and sardonic wit can only mask his trauma for so long.

I’ve yet to see a film made since that 1987 classic that can recapture that slow, deliberate process of dehumanization. However, I think we’ve come pretty close with Monos, Colombia’s submission for next year’s Academy Awards. It’s a smart, tragic look at a small guerrilla unit that tries to survive the harshness of war around them without ever really seeing combat. But there’s an added dimension to the torment they face, as all the soldiers are children. It instantly invites comparisons to Lord of the Flies, but the big difference here is that William Golding’s novel (and subsequent film adaptations) was about “civilized,” British children forming a society, which then breaks down. Here, there is no civilization, no society, only anguish.

The film opens with a beautiful sequence of a group of teenagers playing a hybrid kick-the-can/soccer game while blindfolded, before the cameras zoom out to reveal that these kids literally stand on a precipice, their base of operations built into rocks on the top of a high hill. It’s an immediately jarring image to see young people at play who are also armed to the teeth, and who also have a hostage, known only as “Doctora” because she’s a scientist with some medical ability (American Julianne Nicholson).

Stationed remotely and working for a nameless rebellion called “The Organization,” the group has no politics, no ideology, but they are soldiers nonetheless. I’d argue it’s very likely that they have no actual idea what they’re fighting for or who exactly they’re fighting against. Consisting of five boys, two girls and one non-binary, the unit is dubbed “Monos,” (Spanish for “Monkeys,” but in this context referring to the ancient Greek for “Alone”) by their commanding officer, a diminutive firebrand known as “The Messenger” (Wilson Salazar), who provides training, discipline, and insults. He’s essentially the Sgt. Hartman of the Organization.

Despite the paces he puts them through, the unit does their best to retain just a little bit of childhood innocence and fun. Squadron leader Wolf (Julian Giraldo) becomes romantically involved with Lady (Karen Quintero), and they consummate with the Messenger’s permission. The group hazes the androgynous Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) on “his” 15th birthday (they use male pronouns for the character, but his gender/sexuality is left intentionally ambiguous throughout), forcing Doctora to participate. The younger members Smurf (Deiby Rueda) and Boom Boom (Esneider Castro) are eager to prove themselves. Dog (Paul Cubides) is headstrong and rebellious after leaving his family due to their objections to his love of cross-dressing. The other girl, Swede (Laura Castrillón) is sexually curious and resembles Maisie Williams. Finally, Bigfoot, the second-in-command of the group (Moisés Arias from Hannah Montana) is moody, hotheaded, and jealous of Wolf.

Every member of the unit is distinct and relatable in their own way, even though they’re only known by nicknames and have no real identities. That makes it all the more heartbreaking as the veneer of their youth is stripped away little by little, especially when some suffer their own comeuppance attempting to gain some of it back. The problem is only compounded by the fact that these are all hormonal teenagers who don’t fully understand their own bodies or their own emotions.

All of them, no matter their individual personalities, have a stubborn and impulsive side that more often than not gets the better of them and results in problems. When Dog accidentally kills a cow that they were supposed to care for in celebration, the entire unit is thrown into disarray. When an attack on their base forces them into hiding, Swede reveals her weaknesses to Doctora, which can be exploited later on. When the group is forced to migrate to the jungle, Bigfoot lets a taste of power consume him. When Doctora temporarily escapes, the consequences for Smurf are so severe that you can only then understand just how young he is.

There’s one major problem with the film, though, and that comes down to the plot structure. It’s an unfortunate side effect of having an ensemble cast like this one, especially when each character is so well fleshed out, but for large swaths of the film, it’s never clear whose story this is. At first it seems like it will be Wolf’s, then Lady’s, then Doctora’s, then Bigfoot’s, then finally Rambo’s. No single character is settled on for more than a few minutes, yet all of them play important roles, with only Dog and Boom Boom ever really being relegated to the sidelines for any significant plot points. It becomes confusing, bordering on frustrating, because just when you refocus and become engaged with one character’s story line and motivations, the entire thing shifts. Lady has a crisis of conscience when dealing with Bigfoot’s manipulation and lies, but right when you think she’s going to take some kind of action, everything suddenly shifts to Rambo. Just when you think Rambo has some grand epiphany, it’s time to check back in on Doctora. In a film with such richly-drawn characters, I understand the desire to give them as equal weight as possible, but unfortunately it results in a rather unfocused plot that can only be enjoyed on the base levels. Everything else comes down to the characters themselves, but once you start caring, you’re pulled in another direction.

It’s a shame, too, because apart from that glaring issue, this movie is absolutely brilliant. Again, Full Metal Jacket is my favorite film ever because of how well it depicts the slow erosion of the Marines’ humanity. Monos ups the ante by doing the same thing to naïve, emotionally unstable teenagers. In Full Metal Jacket, the Marines could at least fall back on their training, their orders, and the finely-tuned battle instincts that allow them to carry on their mission even as their comrades fall one by one. Even in Lord of the Flies the boys could fall back on their schooling and indoctrinated notions of proper British manners. Here, the Monos unit has no fallback, no mission, no real orders, and certainly no instincts except for a base, almost primal desire to hold on to some semblance of their youth and societal values, even when there’s basically no hope of ever leading a normal life. This makes the translation of the title appropriate in either native language. These kids are alone, but they also become more animalistic and savage as the film wears on. It’s beautifully tragic, and when these poor kids break down, you feel it right in your gut along with them.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you seen any foreign films this year, and if so, what’s been your favorite? What would your combat nickname be? Let me know!

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