Review: Teenage soldiers fight a war they can't win in 'Monos'

Surreal war film is Colombia's entry into the Best International Feature Film race at next year's Oscars

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

A group of teenage commandos hold a prisoner of war hostage in "Monos," a gorgeously shot, haunting look at human nature at its fraying edges.

Director and co-writer Alejandro Landes lends his film a surreal quality that casts it in a dreamlike haze. But this is urgent, by-the-throat filmmaking, "Lord of the Files" via "Apocalypse Now." 

A scene from "Monos."

High up in the mountains somewhere in Latin America, a group of teenagers known only by their code names — Rambo, Bigfoot, Swede and Boom Boom among them — are trained to be ruthless soldiers. 

They're drilled by the Messenger (Wilson Salazar), who instructs them to care for a cow named Shakira and guard her with their lives. During a round of celebratory gunfire, the cow is accidentally killed, sending the troupe into a panic. 

Loyalties are tested as the group receives instructions, via radio, from afar. None of these children necessarily want to be child rebel soldiers — at one point, one of them explains it's their dream to dance on television — but this is the life they've been indoctrinated into, and "Monos" shows the power and danger of mind control and group mentality, especially on youth.

The score by Mica Levi ("Jackie," "Under the Skin") heightens what is already a tense mood, and cinematographer Jasper Wolf captures some arresting images. 

Among the teens, Moisés Arias stands out as Bigfoot, embodying the outward menace of the group but the fear buried deep at its core. "Monos" isn't so much a tale of innocence lost as it is a portrait of a situation where innocence never stood a chance. It's raw, ugly and urgent. 

'Monos'

GRADE: B

Rated R: for violence, language, some sexual content and drug use

Running time: 102 minutes

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama