Directed by Anthony Mandler.
Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson, Jennifer Ehle, Tim Blake Nelson, John David Washington, A$AP Rocky, Lovie Simone, Nas, Jharrel Jerome, Mikey Madison, Paul Ben-Victor, Dorian Missick, Jeremy Dash, Liam Obergfoll, Rege Lewis, Nyleek Moore, Joel Van Liew, Danny Henriquez, Adriana DeGirolami, Jonny Coyne, Roberto Lopez, Amanda Crown, and June Ballinger.
A smart, likable, 17-year-old film student from Harlem sees his world turned upside down when he’s charged with murder. We follow his dramatic journey through a complex legal battle.
On trial for a bodega robbery and murder Steven (the exceptional Kelvin Harrison Jr., always selecting intriguing projects) claims to have not taken any part; the 17-year-old observes that the fluorescent lighting drowns out the grays, only leaving white and black. Such is the case of a jury, tasked with only perceiving through the lens of guilty or not guilty. For music video director turned debut filmmaker Anthony Mandler (alongside equally inexperienced screenwriters Janece Shaffer and Colen C. Wiley adapting Walter Dean Myers’ novel), it’s a decent through-line for Monster to navigate the complexities and shortsightedness of the justice system.
In execution, it’s a woefully amateurish exercise in raising questions of identity. Steven happens to be a filmmaker and part of the high school film club, which appears to be Anthony Mandler’s rationale to utilize nonlinear storytelling and voiceover narration describing what these events might sound like if it were all a movie. Of course, Monster is a movie, so that point gets redundant fast. Tim Blake Nelson also plays the film club teacher, conveniently lecturing the class about Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which was the breaking point shattering any semblance of subtlety.
There’s never a question in our minds that Steven can do anything he’s accused of, and the same applies to his defense attorney Katherine O’Brien (Jennifer Ehle), standing her ground regarding his innocence after their first conversation. With that in mind, it’s rather unclear what exactly the first half of Monster is supposed to be doing aside from introducing various characters framing Steven to take the fall for their crimes. Played by an assortment of likable actors, including John David Washington, A$AP Rocky, and Jharrel Jerome, there’s not much characterization to be found. Steven is ridiculed for his filmmaking aspirations (a nasty slur derogative towards gays) and told he must integrate himself into something more dangerous and real before he can do so. From there, it’s a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Given Anthony Mandler’s music video background, the editing and presentation are competent, yet the necessity for its fragmented structure is open for debate. If anything, once Monster steers away from the pseudo-intellectual film school lecture within a film to settle into a more straightforward courtroom thriller, that dynamic allows the considerable acting talents of the cast to shine. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is excellent as always (although this might be his least interesting role to date, which only goes to show how many incredible turns he has already had so far), as are his supportive parents played by reliable veterans Jeremy Wright and Jennifer Hudson (interestingly, a musician the director has not worked with until now). Then there are noteworthy supporting bits from Nas and Lovie Simone, not to mention Paul Ben-Victor as a prosecutor convinced Steven is guilty.
The narrative lacks momentum, and for how outstanding the cast sounds on paper, many of them are buried as characters. Also, for a film that starts propped to analyze the jury’s role, nothing interesting happens there either. Monster closes with Steven asking the audience what they really know about him. That would be a powerful stinger of a closing line if the film had actually explored perceptions and perspectives beyond going a roundabout way of disclosing what happened. It’s philosophical posturing blended with the occasional film studies lesson that rarely amounts to anything worth investing in. As for Netflix and their plans to release a movie every week this year, it’s not a bad play picking up something that played Sundance three years ago and still never found distribution despite impressive star power. If the unstoppable brand endlessly purchases mediocrity to fill a content quota, well, then Netflix becomes the real monster.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com