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Film Review: Good Intentions Notwithstanding, “Monster” Doesn’t Quite Succeed

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 7th, 2021

Film poster: “Monster”

Monster (Anthony Mandler, 2018) 2 out of 4 stars. 

A heartfelt tale of innocence betrayed and subverted, director Anthony Mandler’s Monster has a lot going for it, despite a few too many cinematic histrionics. With strong performances from such excellent actors as Jennifer Ehle (A Quiet Passion), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (The High Note), Jennifer Hudson (Sandy Wexler) and Jeffrey Wright (Hold the Dark), the film proves mostly engaging for its 98-minute runtime, no matter its defects of script and mise-en-scène. Still, a muddled ending and confused messaging mar what could otherwise have been a more solid analysis of our justice system’s shortcomings. 

Harrison stars as teenager Steve Harmon, who lives in Harlem but goes to school downtown, at Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City’s finest public institutions. There, he studies filmmaking, among other  subjects, and dreams of becoming a director. In classes led by a passionate teacher (Tim Blake Nelson, HBO’s Watchmen), he reveals his love of abstract imagery, which he is encouraged to combine with a grounded narrative. This leads him to start training his lens on his own neighborhood, where he meets a local tough guy, William King (rapper A$AP Rocky), who takes him under his wing, less to lead him astray than to show him a world outside the classroom. It’s all good until one day, it isn’t.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in MONSTER ©Netflix

We don’t start there, however, but beyond this part of the story, which we visit in flashback. Instead, we first meet Steve in prison, following an opening scene, shown via black-and-white security camera footage, of a bodega robbery gone very wrong. While he’s not directly responsible for the tragedy, we will learn, soon, what he is alleged to have done, courtesy of the trial that makes up the dramatic spine of the movie. Ehle plays his lawyer, Hudson his mom and Wright his dad. Paul Ben-Victor (Friends and Romans), as the prosecutor, struts his stuff (a little too much) as he does his best to convince everyone of Steve’s guilt. The truth of the matter, as it turns out, is complicated.

That is to the good of the screenplay, particularly as Monster wrestles with such important issues as systemic racism and prosecutorial bias. Unfortunately, the trial, itself, is delivered in such a flashy, kinetic way that it is hard to take much of what we see on screen seriously. As Ben-Victor’s DA Petrocelli barks words like “monster” to the jury, and lines of questioning that would never be allowed to stand in an actual courtroom go unchallenged, the worthy themes get lost in the expositional polemic. Add to that the laughable discussions of movie construction and influence as presented in the course sequences at Stuyvesant, and you have a story both nimble and clumsy.

l-r: Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson in MONSTER ©Netflix

To top it all off, Mandler (David Beckham into the Unknown) never explains why a family as obviously educated and financially stable as Steve’s would not try to hire their own lawyer, rather than relying on the public defender. True, in these kinds of fictional dramas, Black families usually find themselves unjustly attacked by white law enforcement, but surely not all such folks are unable to afford attorneys. If the truth is, indeed, more complicated than it seems, then let’s break down all the stereotypes. Good intentions and worthwhile moments aside, Monster can’t quite rise above its significant flaws.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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