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A movie’s road to distribution is not always a straight line, and sometimes, through no fault of its own, it ends up releasing a few years late. Monster, the feature debut of veteran music video director Anthony Mandler, is the latest example, making its way to Netflix this week after premiering at Sundance all the way back in 2018. That it should take so long is somewhat mystifying on paper, given its excellent cast and ever-topical subject matter, and the delay probably had nothing to do with the film itself – but after seeing it, if someone were to tell me it did, I wouldn’t be too surprised. It’s made with enough competence to carry us along, but despite looking like it has something important to say, Monster leaves little to take away after the credits roll.
Adapted from the 1999 novel of the same name by Walter Dean Meyers, Mandler’s film follows the trial of Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a Black 17-year-old accused of participating in a convenience store robbery turned deadly. An honors student and aspiring filmmaker from a happy home, Steve claims he was only there by coincidence and is counting on his lawyer, public defender Maureen O’Brien (Jennifer Ehle), to convince the jury of his innocence. But as scenes of the trial are interwoven with Steve’s memories from before the robbery, many of which explore his relationship with fellow-defendant James King (Rakim “A$AP Rocky” Mayers), it becomes unclear if even the viewer will stay in his corner.
This premise could make for riveting viewing, as something like the HBO miniseries The Night Of proves, but Monster struggles to find an interesting avenue to follow. While it pays lip service to themes like incarceration and the subjectivity of truth, the film is ostensibly most interested in Steve as a person, but the many flashbacks teach us little about who he is beyond his surface-level interests. In other words, these moments show rather than reveal, as if Mandler is not interested in developing his protagonist beyond how he would be described in the synopsis. Monster takes for granted the pathos of its scenario, and while that generates enough emotional investment to keep the viewer in their seat, a more compelling portrait of Steve would have been a reason to care about this story.
The supporting characters are similarly thin, despite the best efforts of the talented actors fighting to bring their inner life to the fore. Those with the least amount of screen time, who only need to suggest depth for us to believe it, are the most successful in this struggle – Jharrel Jerome’s blustering Osvaldo and John David Washington’s menacing Bobo stand out in this regard – but their brief presences cannot sustain a full feature, and I expect more scenes would only have left them similarly exposed. It’s always unfortunate when performances are underserved by the material, because it feels like you can always see a better version of the movie you’re already watching. It might have enough of the trappings of a compelling drama for some to walk away with a thumbs up, but when it comes to what seem like its lofty ambitions, Monster underwhelms.
What’s up Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5
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