Monster Movie Review: An important even if inconsistent legal drama
While the film is technically strong, the same can’t be said about its writing and commitment to the central conceit
Monster begins with an incarcerated Steve Harmon (an excellent Kelvin Harrison Jr) trying to prove to himself and the world that he is no monster. Despite what the prosecution or the jury or the other inmates say, Steve wants to proclaim to the world that they are all wrong. “Monsters don’t cry in the dark,” reasons Steve, who is in jail for being allegedly involved in a shoplifting-turned-murder incident in Harlem.
The film, which marks the directorial debut of Anthony Mandler, employs a narrative style that seems interesting at first but loses charm as it goes on. However, points to the writers for realising this and dropping the shtick after some time. But it makes you wonder why they bothered with this choice in the first place. This is one of several inconsistencies in this legal drama that misses out on truly capitalising on the top-class performances of the principal cast. The problems include expository dialogue and a lack of tension in the writing.
Director: Anthony Mandler
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr, Jennifer Ehle, Rakim Mayers
Streaming on: Netflix
Considering that the film has been awaiting its release for over three years now, we see now-familiar names like John David Washington and Jharrel Jerome show their potential. While the entire film is mounted on the able shoulders of Harrison Jr, the writing allows each of the peripheral characters at least one standout scene. Take, for instance, Harmon’s lawyer (a wonderfully restrained Jennifer Ehle), a voice of reason, say matter-of-factly, “You are young, black and on trial. They found you guilty when they laid eyes on you.” There are no flowery pearls of wisdom. There are no long-winded conversations about the power of positivity. The writing is economical. Even when Harmon’s father meets him in prison, the conversation is concise, and yet, debilitating. His lips may say a lot, but his eyes betray defeat. In all these scenes, Harrison Jr plays the perfect foil.
Also deserving appreciation is the world in Monster that is carved out of the streets of Harlem. There is a constant play of contrast, thanks to the back-and-forth screenplay that allows the makers to play with the lights and colours. Bright lights transition into dark shadows, and the vibrancy of Harmon’s filmmaking is contrasted with the bleakness of the prison. While the film is technically strong, the same can’t be said about its writing and commitment to the central conceit, which is based on the 1999 book of the same name by Walter Dean Myers.
Towards the end of the film, when we have more clarity about what transpired on that fateful afternoon, Steve Harmon asks us, “Am I a human or a monster…” It’s a scene that allows us to understand more about us than about him. We process the many themes: rampant racial profiling, skewed incarceration rates, class divide, the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. However, much of this awareness is a result of us connecting the dots with real-life incidents and not necessarily through the film itself. Monster is an effective conversation enabler, but if it needed to be more affecting, it needed a lesser number of misfires ahead of that effective climax.