Directed By Anthony Mandler
Starring – Kelvin Harrison Jr, John David Washington, Jennifer Ehle
The Plot – Based on the award winning novel by Walter Dean Myers, the film tells the story of Steve Harmon (Harrison), a 17 yr old honors student and aspiring filmmaker who gets caught up in a robbery where a murder happens. The film follows his dramatic journey through a complex legal battle for his fight to prove his innocence.
Rated R for adult language throughout, some violence and bloody images
– The rising stud. At this point in his young career, Kelvin Harrison Jr can do no wrong in my eyes. Blessed with an abundance of roles made all the more complex by his decision to play Steve in this film, Harrison has carved out an abundance of depth emotionally, and chameleon-like transformations visually, that make him such a fresh and exciting face in the millennial acting game, giving us one of the more eclectic filmographies in recent memory. His presence here is made all the more captivating by the character’s vulnerability, fleshed out with Harrison’s youthful approach to a uniquely adventurous spirit that unfortunately black youths aren’t fleshed out with in these kind of films. Harrison is involved in 100% of the movie’s scenes, but his broad shoulders ambitiously carry the weight, producing not only another star-making turn for the Kelvin, but also my primary interest in the film, which without him would easily dilute this film into failing territory.
– Bitterly honest. Even within a convoluted folder of courtroom drama’s that have been made all the more saturated over the last twenty years of cinema, “Monster” still has a unique social commentary about the perspective of those seeking justice, that is made all the more complicated by evidential systematic racism that often ties a particular demographic under one roof. In this respect, Steve is basically told that because he is black, he is guilty until proven innocent, a startling revelation that made the entirety of the movie’s primary conflict a grueling uphill climb, complete with a deconstruction of preconceived notions, as well as a reflection of our own deep-rooted inequalities that sadly still remains as prominently displayed as much today as it ever was. Capped off cohesively with the experimental cinematography from David Devlin, documenting much of the facial resonation of the jury, the film feels like one of the more responsibly honest installments to the genre, speaking easily interpretable volumes to the in-person adversity that minorities become saddled with in a system that quite literally doesn’t have their best interests at heart.
– Useful narration. It isn’t often that I praise a movie for its use of audible narration to accompany the movie’s visuals, but its inclusion here taps into a psychology for the character that we otherwise wouldn’t have access to, thanks in whole to the isolation that he faces while incarcerated. Instead of echoing everything that we can see and easily perceive in the film’s visual capacity, the vocalization from Steve keys us into the fear and thoughtlessness that went into some highly questionable situations, granting us clarity that brilliantly articulates emotional resonance as we experience them through Steve’s eyes. If I have one critique in this method, it’s that the film goes to the well with it a bit too often for my taste, but never does its inception feel meandering or clumsy in the way of its delivery, instead serving as a useful tool from a man who looks back on its memory with unshakeable regret in the abundance of freedom that it cost him.
– Collective thoughts. The intentionally sporadic cuts in the movie’s editing scheme will anger some moviegoers, but I found it to be a useful tool in conveying the constant ball of nerves that envelopes Steve in reflecting back. Most of the memories included pertain to a particular scene or unveiling in the foreground, but what I find most intriguing about this scheme is the way so many of them are left ambiguously open-ended, leaving the scene unresolved with the layer of closure needed to stitch everything together. There’s easy satisfaction to be had with a story unraveling in a straight and narrow path in real time, but I love the way the reflection of the past always plays a precisely deciding factor in the events of the foreground, which weigh heavily on the matters that Steve would’ve changed if he only spotted them sooner.
– Artistic eye. This will be a confusing section, because while I credit first time director Anthony Mandler with an abundance of seductive style in the movie’s lucid presentation, it does create some problems that I will navigate through later on. With that said, Mandler stitches together some sleek transitions and alluring color pallets that consistently drew me to the imagery of this film, and proved that he certainly has the draw and ambition to be a highly sought after filmmaker. This allows transcendence to the movie’s miniscule budget ($3.5 million), preserving no shortage of aesthetic layers that simultaneously play into the creativity of Steve’s character, who himself is an aspiring filmmaker. Like Steve, Mandler sees the best in the stage crafted before him. This gives the film another advantageous spin into Steve’s psyche to compliment the audible narration that I previously mentioned, allowing us to see the beauty that he sees in the form of spell-binding manifestation in anything as temporary as the glare from a street light, to anything as permanent as still-frame photography meant to burn a perception into the mind of its audience.
– Nourishing exposition. In particular with the courtroom sequences, the lines of dialogue overlap in a series of questions and answers from respective lawyers and witnesses, which gives the deliveries some semblance of musical cadence to the overall delivery. This not only keeps the rapid fire movement of banter between sides at a consistently intriguing pace, but also keeps it feeling enriched in authenticity in a way that is rooted in structure. In attaining this, one sequence between Steve and his lawyer (Played by Jennifer Ehle), shows how speech patterns and deliveries in court can have an adverse effect to how the jury interprets them, leaving the examinations feeling like a psychological game of chess between sides that demands the audience hang onto every word to reach the same level of intense resonance that the very characters do, once they reach the finish line of their examination. It brings out my favorite element of courtroom drama’s, and one that illustrates court cases as being not so much a demand for justice, but instead a competition for who can competently craft the best narrative for the enjoyment of those with the power in their hands.
– Wasted pieces. Considering “Monster” has easily one of the best collective ensembles of 2021 (Or 2018 in this case), the result of their assembly left plenty more to be desired in the way of their immense figures. Such is the case for Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson, two heavyweights of dramatic emphasis, who here are left to share a couple of scenes that leave very little meat of intrigue to the appeal of their respective characters. There’s also a criminally undersold subplot in the form of a love interest for Steve (Played by Lovie Simone), too much time spent on a duo of gangster characters (Played by ASAP Rocky and John David Washington), whom are easily the worst performances of the entire cast, and even characters (Nas, Tim Blake Nelson) whose inclusion to the plot is completely pointless with where the film takes them. If you have no desire to use these pivotal pieces of familiarity, then why even cast them in the first place. It’s an insult to their talents, and to the audience who see every film they’re in as fans to their careers, and wastes away what could’ve possibly been academy acclaim.
– Style shorting substance. I previously tipped my hat to the movie’s abundance of eye-catching style that seems right at home for a music video director of Mandler’s significance, but where that beauty compromises the prosperity of the film is in the coldly undercooked layer of dramatic emphasis, which underscores this film significantly. I’ve always said that urgency and vulnerability are the two most important factors in dramatic film, and one without the other isn’t as effective. That is most definitely the case here, as Steve’s overwhelming vulnerability is never even remotely met with an urgency that finely illustrates what is hanging in the balance at all times. In fact, the directing is so paint by the numbers and routine that it never truly intensifies the tragedy of the situation, instead settling for cheap shaking camera effects over the focus needed to vividly paint the despair of a family quite literally on the edge. Because of such, my investment to the film periodically waned, and proved that Mandler’s biggest room for improvement over future films will be in the tonal consistency that he seems distracted to competently maintain here.
– Too short. At 93 brief and conflicting minutes, “Monster’s” reach on the grasp of the material left much more to be desired, and often stood as the reckless force that never elevated the material to thought-provoking pieces of social commentary. The hinting of a flawed judicial system is most certainly there, mainly in the means of minorities taking the stand against all odds, as I previously mentioned. However, there’s a bigger story and cultural pollution at surface level that screenwriters Radha Blank, Cole Wiley, and Janece Shaffer blindly ignore, feeding into the biggest disadvantage that this film takes on from its superior literary novel of the same name. For that book, there’s a vast attention paid to the effects of Steve’s incarceration, not only on his family, but also in the surrounding neighborhood, giving it a pulse an immersive presence that is most evidently missing in the heartbeat of the film’s material. It leaves “Monster” feeling like another of the conventionally predictable installments of the genre that leave very little lasting power ten minutes after seeing it, and keeps much of the film’s execution feeling sloppily rushed when the story and responsibilities of such demanded so much more.
– Telegraphed. Another aspect different from the novel, and one that influences the film exponentially is the diversity in tone and reflection of the protagonist, which far too often leaves this adaptation feeling predictably heavy in a way that is too tidy to feel authentic. Most notably in the novel, Steve’s innocence is contradicted with a moral ambiguity and toxic masculinity that raises awareness for a bigger character flaw in his demeanor, instead of the near perfect adolescent that he’s depicted as in the film. But the ending between them is perhaps the biggest difference, as the novel conveys an open ended ambiguity that doesn’t mail in all of the answers to its audience. In contrast, the film leaves audiences with an air of hope and finality that not only downplays the influence of a lower class neighborhood, but also plays too handedly into the material of Steve’s film class morals, at times even outlining movements of the movie in a way that was predictably frustrating for someone like me who adores films with a way of breaking conventions.
My Grade: 6/10 or C