Cinema can find so many ways in. Alejandro Landes’ astonishing “Monos,” recently named Colombia’s official Oscar submission, seeps in through the skin like a sweet, druggy sickness — the kind that heightens and sharpens your dreams even as it scrambles them, making the brights brighter and the darks darker, while keeping you feverishly uncertain about whether the next cut will bring rapture or nightmare. A sublimely crafted saga about child soldiers discovering their own hearts of darkness in an unnamed, untamed Latin American wilderness, “Monos” presents an ugly reality in terms so profoundly paradoxical it becomes surreality: an experience at once jagged and lyrical, brutal and beautiful, angry and abstract, scattered and wholly singular.
These Lost Boys, some of them girls, whose raggedy clothes are accessorized with battered machine guns, slung across bony shoulders or dangling carelessly off thin arms, go by noms de guerre like Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), Boom-boom (Sneider Castro), Lady (Karen Quintero), Dog (Paul Kubides), Wolf (Julian Giraldo) and Bigfoot (Moises Arias). On a misty mountaintop, these beasts of no nation occupy a militaristic-looking ruined bunker and keep watch over a single prisoner, a white American engineer they call “Doctora” (Julianne Nicholson, in a performance of impressively strung-out, exhausted physicality), the duration of her captivity casually indicated by the lengthening gray roots of her straggly red hair.
They have little understanding of, or interest in, the wider political game in which they are such expendable pawns, but initially there’s a sort of savage stability under the leadership of Wolf, who is left in charge by their diminutive captain and drill instructor Mensajero (erstwhile real-life guerilla fighter Wilson Salazar). Intended to check up on his recruits and to make irregular proof-of-life videos of the captive, Mensajero’s visits are infrequent, but he represents an inviolable adult authority as their only real contact with the rebel militia known as “The Organization” of which the Monos (meaning “monkeys”) are nominally a unit. And so when the precious dairy cow he leaves in their care is accidentally killed during the bacchanalian celebrations of Wolf and Lady’s “marriage,” it sets off a chain of disaster that will see the far more volatile and insecure Bigfoot assume the role of squad leader, and preside over their descent from the relative idyll of the mountaintop, into the steamy, teeming jungle terrain below.
DP Jasper Wolf’s gloriously changeable imagery is a central part of the film’s eerie effectiveness. At times the camera is godlike, eagle-eyed, creating majestic, sacred-looking widescreen vistas that look down on floating banks of cloud pierced only by mountaintops and pinned to a tiny figure silhouetted, slouching on a peak. Sometimes the imagery is abstract, like an extended underwater sequence in which bubbles swirl through fretted blue waters like corpuscles in blood. At other times, the frame is dynamic, handheld and jerky, before turning woozy with drunken, blissed-out horror, as when Bigfoot, Lady and Boom-boom find magic mushrooms growing in the cow’s dung and trip out just before an attack on their stronghold.
This consistently unsettled point of view gives the film a shifting focus, reflected in the way that first Wolf is the protagonist, then the Doctor as she attempts an escape, then it’s Bigfoot morphing into a murderous, pint-sized Col. Kurtz. Finally, the story coalesces around the androgynous Rambo, who comes to represent the tiny flare of fearful, hopeful humanity that remains inside them all — the boys, the girls, the bullies, the victims — amid so much cruelty and despair.
There is “The Lord of the Flies” here, obviously and there is “Apocalypse Now.” In the fleshy slapping of bodies against bodies, the observation of arcane rituals and the frank (though never graphic) sexuality, there is even a little “Beau Travail,” but the filmmaking is fervid, malarial — a hundred heartbeats per minute away from Claire Denis’ cerebral coolness. And with Mica Levi turning in the latest of her irreplaceable film scores, “Monos” becomes even more its own, alien thing. Gargantuan mountain drums rumble under tiny fluting pipes, and over images of endless, perilous countryside we are swamped in industrial noises that sound like the throbbing of turbines or the thwapping of a chopper’s blades. Like so much else here, the music thrives on the discordant energy released when you place things that do not belong together — like the words “child” and “soldier” — in close proximity.
A final coda brings us to the hazy outskirts of a sprawling city, and it is just as disorienting and anachronistic as if this Planet of the Monkeys had ended with a Statue of Liberty half-buried in the dirt. Perhaps that is the single most compelling aspect of Landes’ unique, mesmerizing film — the uncanny sense of being lost in time and space. Is “Monos” a cautionary tale of a chilling possible future or a half-remembered foundation myth from a folkloric past? Is it post-apocalyptic or prehistoric? Despite reminders of modernity — a sewing machine, a video camera, a television running an incongruous report on Gummy Bear production in Germany — there are times “Monos” feels like ancient legend. And in those moments, Rambo, Bigfoot, Lady and the whole, extraordinary ensemble are not just frightened, stolen, feral children but mythic figures: the kind of jealous, petty demigods who birthed nations with their spilled blood and suckled at the teats of wolves, and whose stories haunted the collective unconscious of the primitive, pre-civilized world.