Monster is a Cinematic Fossil
I felt conflicted in the moments after the end credits rolled on Anthony Mandler’s Monster. That’s a criticism and a compliment. To its credit, Monster defies certain neat encapsulation, swerving away from the tragic or sentimental cliches that its story might suggest. But it’s also over-stuffed, overflowing with contradictory ideas, many left half-finished, dangling in the wind, as the movie moves elsewhere, distracted by its own cleverness. Made in 2017, debuting on the festival circuit in 2018, and dropping on Netflix today, Monster ultimately transforms into a finely wrought artefact: a story of Black identity and experience deeply rooted in outdated concepts of how the justice system works (and should work).
Penned in part by The 40-Year-Old Version writer-director Radha Blank - and debuting at the same Sundance festival two years before Radha’s debut - Monster’s strength lies in its central character. Steve Harmon is an honors student thrown into the maelstrom of being a Black man on trial in America when he’s accused of abetting a robbery that results in a felony murder. As Steve, Kelvin Harrison Jr., who has emerged as one of the most talented young actors of his generation in the four years since filming took place, instills nearly every moment with a trembling vivacity. Harrison brings audiences 90% into his internal world, but the movie creates a distance with that last 10%, seemingly in an attempt to keep us wondering about the boy’s true motives and actions. It’s a feat he would replicate and build upon in 2019’s Luce. Harrison’s face is so expressive, it’s easy to forget about what it might be masking.
On the flip side, the film’s rudimentary grasp of America’s legal system - both on a technical and observational level - lets down Harrison’s performance. Monster nods to the legal cliches that reflect reality - the overworked public defender, the lie of “innocent until proven guilty” in so many cases - but it undermines those realities for narrative convenience. And it makes very simple mistakes, particularly in the film’s climactic sequence when Steve Harmon takes the stand to tell his story (Harmon’s attorney would never wait and let her opposing counsel be the first to ask Harmon about his relationship with a co-defendant).
Luckily Monster’s ensemble has been blessed by both time and fortune. Rappers Nas and A$AP Rocky prove themselves to be able multi-hyphenates, and Jeffrey Wright brings his trademark restraint to the role of Steve’s father, creating a more complicated relationship than exists on the page with nothing but body language. John David Washington appears seemingly out of nowhere nearly halfway into the film for a minor role, a jarring surprise that makes more sense when you remember this was filmed before Malcolm & Marie, Tenet, or even BlacKkKlansman. Despite its uneven depiction of the American legal system, its actors make Monster worth checking out on Netflix.