Director Anthony Mandler swaps swanky music videos for drama in this adaptation of Walter Dean Myers’ novel. Monster tells the story of Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a budding filmmaker whose life is turned upside down when he is detained and accused of being an accomplice to a murder. Mandler’s film details both Steve’s trial and his life before and around the incident.
Monster isn’t a bad film, per se, but it’s too gimmicky for its own good. Mandler’s music video background shows; he struggles to carry the narrative in an engaging manner and while the film looks great, it lacks a coherent visual flair throughout. Monster is idealistic and sweet, but also naïve. It’s idea of race feels slightly outdated and while the ending is intriguing, it doesn’t manage to say anything new about the themes it raises.
Thankfully, the film is cast perfectly. Kelvin Harrison Jr. who has already excelled in similar roles in Waves, Luce and Monsters and Men, turns in an enigmatic performance here once again. He shows effortless charm and a strong screen presence and while Steve is written as infuriatingly naïve and at times one-dimensional, Harrison Jr. is able to inject the role with much needed depth and internal struggle. He juggles fear, desperation, panic and anger, often within the same scene and makes it look easy. Harrison Jr. is one of the most interesting rising stars and Monster is yet another example of his capabilities as an actor.
Jennifer Ehle, playing Steve’s lawyer, is wonderfully unfussy in a role that would have been easy to overplay. Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson play Steve’s parents, but they feel side-lined and are criminally underused. Their pain and shock are seen but never properly felt in the narrative that feels both rushed and too simplistic. Tim Blake Nelson shows up as Steve’s film teacher and while there is certain glee about those scenes, it’s also painfully cringe-worthy as they speak of narratives and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. What was clearly meant to be deliciously meta, just comes across as awkward.
The script, by Janece Shaffer and Colen C. Wiley, is heavy-handed with the themes. Race is the obvious elephant in the room, but the film never manages to actually discuss it in a meaningful way. We know the odds are against Steve because he is Black and on trial, but it never goes further than that. There is admirable effort to complicate this in the end, but it’s too little, too late and renders Monster forgettable and bland. That being said, the film does still raise valid points of our own assumptions of race and should leave you pondering your own morals while the credits roll.
Thankfully Mandler is able to create some powerful moments, even if these remain individual and somewhat removed from the bigger picture. David Devlin cinematography is often chaotic and always organic, and it’s aided by Joe Klotz’s precise and sharp editing. Technically, Monster is competent, but it already feels dated and old and for a reason; it premiered at Sundance all the way back in 2018 which means it was filmed in 2017, 4 whole, tumultuous years ago. A lot has changed since then, for better and for worse. Unfortunately, Monster misses the mark, but is still worth watching for another electric Kelvin Harrison Jr. performance.
Monster streams on Netflix May 7.