Director: Alejandro Landed | Runtime: 1h 42Mins | Drama, Thriller
Upon a mountaintop in a unnamed South American country, eight armed child militia are protecting a hostage for their resistance masters known only as ‘The Organisation’, conducting military drills and giving in to more feral urges.
Writer/director Alejandro Landes has already made a huge mark on the non-English speaking film world with only two features to his name; the documentary/fiction hybrid Porfirio (2013) and this years Monos. A straight piece of fiction this time, Landes blurs the lines between a lack of narrative and a story driven piece, focusing on the characters and the situation they’re in rather than having a clear arc and journey for them to travel.
It opens upon the aforementioned mountaintop, the children in question playing a form of football, blindfolded, the ball covered in bells for them to locate it. Early on, we see the juvenile nature of the troop. They may be branded warriors, given weapons and run through military drills, but at heart they’re still teenagers trying to find their way in the confusing world they find themselves in. The group consists of merely nicknames; Wolf, Lady, Dog, Boom Boom, Smurf, Swede, but most of the focus is on the androgynous Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) and Bigfoot (Moises Arias) – the latter of which is most recognisable from Ender’s Game (2013) or The Kings Of Summer (2013), taking a fantastic turn into heavier drama being the most antagonistic character towards Rambo. That being said, there are no true antagonists in the film except the remote landscapes they find themselves in. Most of the narrative progression comes from these child soldiers giving into their more basic urges; sexual desire, violent tendencies, absolute power.
They’ve been placed upon the mountaintop to protect a woman only known as Doctora (Julianne Nicolson), a American captive held presumably for ransom. Nicolson is another role well cast, her desperation ever growing, unsettling dances in her secluded hostage cell deepen our pity for her. On a seemingly routine basis the troop is visited by Mensajero (Wilson Salazar), a messenger from The Organisation, checks the state of their prisoner and runs them through their drills keeping them disciplined and in order – they even have to go as far to ask permission if they would like to start a relationship with another member of the group.
It becomes a more violent and unnerving version of Lord Of The Flies, but takes its own route halfway in, uprooting the kids from their vast mountaintop abode and relocating them deep in a unnamed jungle. Claustrophobia is rampant, even Doctora is above ground now, hardly separated from her captors bar plastic sheeting. The radical change starts to shift dynamic’s and relationships in the group, tension on their motives and why they should listen to the messenger start to seep into the minds of the leaders of the pack. This hierarchy is shown wonderfully through simple actions like the stronger pushing the weaker aside beside a campfire, only getting harsher throughout.
Visually the film is absolutely stunning throughout, the gorgeous mountaintop is haunting but beautiful, perhaps reflecting the freedom they feel in these early scenes. Although still harsh, there’s a far better sense of enjoyment and independence here – shattered later under the crushing weight around them in the jungle. Even then though, there’s still no sense of border or confines to the edge of their domain, a interesting contrast to the reality of the jungle around them.
The score is arguably the most effective part of the whole film, split between brutally striking and eerily haunting, it plays over scenes of the kids dancing around fires and unleashing their weapons upon the empty mountainside, even taking a hallucinogenic trip from some wild mushrooms, it constantly puts you on the edge, every harsh tone making you think the worst it about to fall upon them. Deeply unsettling yet wonderfully mesmerising, composer Mica Levi creating one of the most unique and effective scores in some time.
Part Lord Of The Flies, part Apocalypse Now, Landes is subtle with his inspirations and creates a fantastically unique piece; deeply unsettling, hypnotic and bizarre that’ll certainly stick with you for some time.