Monster movie review: Kelvin Harrison Jr shines in earnest telling of a Black teen’s courtroom woes
Monster might be a courtroom drama, but the film eschews legal jugglery and dramatic twists in favour of an audio-visual approach
castKelvin Harrison Jr, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson, Jennifer Ehle, John David Washington, Tim Blake Nelson, Jharrel Jerome,
There are a number of choices director Anthony Mandler and writers Radha Blank, Cole Wiley and Janece Shaffer make in Monster, that would initially strike you as inherently obvious ones.
Monster’s teenaged protagonist Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is an aspiring filmmaker, so a voiceover by him describes moments of his life starting with a scene header, as in a screenplay: Interior – Courtroom, for instance. Standing trial on a felony murder charge, scenes depicting Steve’s life before and after his world turned upside down can instantly be distinguished by the visual palette on display. His ‘before’ life is bathed in warm golden glows; the ‘after’, in comparison, is made up of stark grays and dull blues (with a dash of colour contrast for effect, when required). You could tell these two time periods of his life apart with a single frame from each of these portions, with no other context needed.
Not to mention, in a film about a filmmaker whose fate depends on which of the various versions of the ‘truth’ about an incident a jury believes, the passing use of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon in Steve’s film class seems like the kind of thing that should’ve been dropped immediately after it was first suggested, simply for being, well, too obvious.
Yet, despite all of these and the other overt touches in the film, most of it feeding into a sense of knowing how the film will end, there is an understated intensity simmering through Monster that holds it up for its 98-minute runtime.
It might be a courtroom drama, but the film eschews legal jugglery and dramatic twists in favour of an audio-visual approach that gives you the impression this is how the protagonist would have later recalled that particular traumatic experience of his life, perhaps giving him the fuel, if not the story itself, for his first film-specific memories of place, feel and texture, flitting across timelines in the mind because of esoteric triggers or memories.
Indeed, when Steve’s film professor says in class that a filmmaker makes films because they have a story to tell with a burning passion, so they want to ‘write it, film it, share it’, Steve instantly asks, ‘but what if I don’t feel that?’. The professor’s response, rather obviously I might add, is ‘then you haven’t found your story.’ In Monster, we’re always watching Steve find his story – that’s what the film is really about; the unfolding of the plot of the film itself doesn’t really matter, in that sense. (I’d say the film also happens to be a good contemporary case study of the subtle differences between ‘montage’ and ‘decoupage’ in a film theory class, but that would perhaps be playing straight into the filmmakers’ hands, even if they didn’t specifically intend it.)
Of course, there is always the spectre of race hanging over everything we see of his life. Steve studies in a prestigious New York school, with parents who appear to have managed to break out of the vicious cycle of racial oppression, a wretched prevailing feature of American society. Still, that doesn’t protect Steve from falling prey to the grotesquery of what the colour of his skin might mean to the average white American.
‘He looks the part to me’, says the public prosecutor to Steve’s lawyer at one point, when they’re debating his guilt in private. The colour of his skin and the racism baked into the American judicial system is why they would even consider a 20-year sentence to a 17-year-old, for allegedly being a minor accomplice in a botched bodega robbery that led to an accidental gun death. Yes, the manner in which we’re shown the impact Steve’s race has on this distressing chapter of his life follows the same predictable beats that much of the film does, but that doesn’t make witnessing it any less moving.
This, primarily, is because of Kelvin Harrison Jr’s restrained, mature performance as Steve. You will root for Steve as he bares his late-adolescent perspective on his depressing ordeal. You will grow to care about the little activities of his life that reveal how the young filmmaker views the world. And you will appreciate the people around him, who walk with him in this phase of his life.
Jennifer Ehle plays Steve’s lawyer with the air of an all-knowing realist; the more you see of her in the film, the more you feel in your bones that this is the right lawyer for him. Meanwhile, her counterpart across the aisle – the public prosecutor who brazenly displays the tough-nosed confidence of someone backed by the State – is played to near-perfection by Paul Ben-Victor. Special mention to Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson who play Steve’s parents. They don’t have much to do apart from showing up, really, and they still manage to leave an impression. It’s also hard to not delight in seeing spiffy cameos from Jharrel Jerome (When They See Us) and John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman, Tenet), even though these were shot before they each broke out. (Monster is a 2018 film acquired by Netflix for release in 2021.)
There is much to appreciate in the narrative style of Monster, particularly with its bursts of startling visual composition, and its short, sharp scenes cutting across Steve’s ‘before’ and ‘after’ perspectives. Its technique also ensures that the pace of the film doesn’t drop, making it easy to go along with the debutante feature filmmaker’s enthusiasm in attempting to pack so much craft into a simple albeit moving story.
Monster streams on Netflix.
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