I won't call Monos the best film I've seen in 2019. That's a peculiar way to start a review, I know, but I'm doing it in order to make what might even been a bigger claim: Monos is the most exciting film I've seen in 2019. Some of that excitement comes from the undeniable appeal of surprise: the film's director and co-writer, Alejandro Landes, has before now made one documentary feature and one pseudo-documentary, neither of which seems to have made much of a splash anywhere outside of the festival scene, the younger of which is eight years old. And now here he comes with a narrative feature that suggests a born filmmaker, the kind who sees the world around and automatically figures out how to stage it, where to set the camera and which lens to use, how to move it rhythmically through blocking and editing. The film isn't perfect, but there's a kind of perfection hovering within it - every shot, every scene transition, every noise on the soundtrack, and damn near every piece of acting business is exactly the right one, or at least it becomes the right one the moment it appears.

Just to throw out a random example, one that's been sticking with me nonstop in the days I saw the movie: there's a character who, at a certain point early on, is confronted with something horrifying and traumatic, but it happens offscreen, and her encounter with that event happens during a narrative ellipsis. We only know what happened to her because we the film lands on a shot of her scrubbing blood off her face as she stands under a shabby trickle of water pouring down the side of a concrete wall, and the camera zooms towards her as she somewhat ineptly tries to clean herself while her expression stays pointedly slack. So that's already two things: the cut, which makes us do all the work of figuring out the story and the psychology, and then the zoom itself, which starts out far enough away that we're not sure at first what the moment is or what it means, and which only clarifies its meaning as the world outside the girl's head is systematically discarded from the film, and we're invited to focus on her, and the tiny space around her, a nasty-looking, damp, mossy corner, rendered in such vivid greys and greens that you can almost feel the unpleasantly clammy water as it hits her head.

The temptation to just start describing shots is extremely strong with Monos; it's a film that draws maximum attention to how our knowledge is being curtailed and shaped by what we see, and it doesn't hurt that it's stupid fucking gorgeous throughout. But to provide a baseline, some plot details: on a plateau or hilltop - it's hard to tell which, since it's perpetually surrounded by a dense fog - a group of adolescents are under the thumb of a small man they only know as the Messenger (Wilson Salazar). He's the representative of the Organization, which appears to be a paramilitary group in whatever country this is meant to be; the film is a multinational production, like a great many South American films, but Colombia was the base of operations. But it matters that we don't know where we are, and it matters that we don't know what the Organization hopes to achieve, or what the Organization even is. Monos thrives on refusing us context: it's a story about a cult mindset, essentially, with the eight child soldiers (for that is who those adolescents are, as we'll learn pretty fast) themselves being purposefully reduced to purely reactive beings; they are denied agency, identity, and knowledge, only given instructions and never explanations. Monos only once ever allows us a piece of information they don't have, and it's in what's already the film's worst sequence, so let's just count it: we only know what the main characters know, and the point is that they know basically nothing.

Monos is not, I don't think, "about" child soldiers; that is to say, if you're hoping for a complex moral treatment of that phenomenon, you won't get it. It is purely subjective and experiential, and if it has any kind greater meaning at all, it's one that it has largely borrowed wholesale from Lord of the Flies: a group of teenagers, separated from human culture and moral codes, will form a crude society based on expressions of violence. For that's what hormones will do, left unchecked. And oh! what a hormonal movie Monos is. As well as a violent one, and acutely tense about the omnipresent likelihood of violence erupting, either because of teenagers establishing and challenging hierarchies between themselves, or because of teenagers being reckless and dumb.

But that's if it has any greater meaning. Honestly, I half-suspect the reason that Landes and co-writer Alexis Dos Santos are so blithe about replicating Lord of the Flies is so they don't have to worry about the viewer having to do any work interpreting the story. This isn't a story movie. This is a sensory overload movie. This is a movie about letting us inhabit the exact world that the teens do, from a position about two feet to the side of them, and understanding from the sheer much-ness of it how they could be broken and turned to savagery. It doesn't necessarily do this for all of the characters. The soldiers - "Monos" is the collective word the Messenger uses for them - divide sort of into three groups. There are the two who are likeliest to develop moral centers at some point, Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) and Smurf (Deibi Rueda). There are the two who are likeliest to burst out in raw, animalistic violence, Bigfoot (Moisés Arias) and Dog (Paul Cubides). And then there are the four who seem to be pretty much helpless in face of whatever tide is sweeping them along, and so when that tide is directed by Bigfoot and Dog, that means they're going to take a turn towards animal savagery too: Wolf (Julián Giraldo), who starts out as the leader, Lady (Karen Quintero), Swede (Laura Castrillón), and Boom Boom (Sneider Castro). And there's a tenth character to consider in all of this, the American captive the Monos are guarding for the Organization, a woman they only refer to as Doctora (Julianne Nicholson).

So the point being, we have a lot of people to deal with, and some of them are bluntly terrifying - Arias's performance, in particular, has a tinge of unpredictable madness that makes him truly unnerving to watch. So as Monos pulls us from one subjectivity to the next, it largely does so only with the characters who are most horrified by this world - Rambo, primarily, but individual shots and scenes take us along with several of the others, and one sequence moves us squarely into Doctora's head, as she tries to keep her extreme panic buried enough to figure out a way to survive and escape. This fluctuating subjectivity prevents Monos from ever feeling like it has a protagonist, or even a narrative throughline; it's more like audio-visual stimuli keep accumulating and getting increasingly hard for us to cope with, until at the conclusion the film becomes almost totally illegible at the level of subjectivity (we are presumalby looking through somebody's eyes, but I'm not sure whose), objectivity (and I'm also not sure what, specifically, I'm looking at - did somebody just die? The person whose POV I'm currently inhabiting?), and even formally (at its most intense moment, the image suddenly transforms into an abstract ballet of what look like they're probably CGI bubbles). Switching from person to person without warning is just one more strategy for adding to the chaos that builds and modulates throughout the feature, and has a mid-film spike when Doctora (the one character who is most attuned to that chaos by living outside of it) is subjected to the overwhelming bugginess of the jungle, in one of the most aggressive, loud stretches of sound effects mixing I've encountered in some time.

This is a whole lot: a lot of beauty, a lot of energy, a lot of terror, a lot of moving parts to keep track of. But the film's genius is that it's always just a step shy of too much. The film is persistently stimulating without being exhausting, and it's a perfect example of a film that teaches us how to watch it as it escalates; it also uses a phenomenal score by Mica Levi (who has now composed enough consecutive phenomenal scores that I could probably have one paragraph that just says "Mica Levi wrote the music" and there nothing would be left unsaid) that shifts from jarring experimentation to soft, pleasant wind-driven tunes, never challenging the images but providing a channel alongside them that helps guide the viewer's energetic response to the movie.

It has the terrible misfortune to start falling apart near the end: there's an entire sequence that exists, seemingly, just to facilitate some of the grim miserabilism that the film has mostly managed to avoid, and the very last shot finds a character staring directly into the camera in a way that suggest a much more simplistic, moralistic, banal intention to the film than everything preceding it ever did. Still, five minutes of flaws in exchange for a feature's worth of the most exhilarating filmmaking of 2019 is a deal I'd make any time, and Monos is such a delirious piece of work overall that being flawless on top of it was surely always out of the question.