Much like its protagonist, Anthony Mandler’s Monster is a film obsessed with aesthetics. Main character Steve Harmon says he makes sense of his humanity through understanding the shapes and textures of the world around him, and with an occasionally heavy hand, director Mandler similarly captures Steve’s world through a stylized lens. It’s there in the postcard perfect sunsets of a youth spent growing up in Harlem, and it’s here again in the film’s unnaturally gray, sterile courtroom scenes.
But the hardness of Monster, which speaks to the very dehumanizing nature of its title, comes from where we’re first introduced to Steve as played by a riveting Kelvin Harrison Jr.: He’s a teenager, terrified by a criminal justice system that has vilified him as the proverbial monster from the minute he was charged with felony murder. If we’re asked to see the world as Steve does, through tears in a dimly lit jail cell, then the young character’s movie can become as bleak and narrow as the personality that the DA’s office attempts to hang on him.
Clearly this is meant to expose the inner-workings of a story Americans are far too familiar with from watching the nightly news. And Monster approaches that tale with a lot of flourish. More importantly though, it also comes at it with a uniformly devastating ensemble cast; the kind that cuts through any artifice, be it from the legal system or the movie’s presentation, to offer an undeniably bitter truth about the way Blackness is othered in American life.
The actual crime Steve is charged with is kept out of focus for most of the film. Told in a nonlinear fashion, Monster is a near tonal poem about the anxieties of youth and the horror of being turned into the boogeyman. Before that happened, however, Steve is just an especially bright kid from a happy, upper middle class background. As the film unfurls its layers, we see the many different facets of Steve’s life: the good son beloved by his mother and father (Jennifer Hudson and Jeffrey Wright) who are planning his collegiate future; the gifted honor roll student and star pupil of his elite high school’s film studies program; and the young burgeoning artist who is perhaps naively drawn too closely to all walks of life in his Manhattan neighborhood.
When a nearby bodega is robbed and the owner winds up murdered by other young men Steve’s crossed paths with in Harlem (John David Washington, ASAP Rocky), Steve is implicated practically by association—and the fact he bought a drink at the convenience store right before the crime occurred. His public servant attorney Katherine (Jennifer Ehle) looks at a young kid with a bright future and believes him when he says he was not acting as a lookout for the robbery. But the ADA (Paul Ben-Victor) takes one glance at the Black teen in handcuffs and says, “He looks the part to me.”
Originally premiering at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, it’s taken long enough for Monster to reach wide release that Harrison and other members of the cast have already risen via other projects. But the same irresistible presence that made Harrison so captivating in the underrated Luce (he also played Fred Hampton in The Trial of the Chicago 7) returns here. In fact, Steve is both a more sympathetic and, in some ways, complex protagonist than Luce.
Monster immediately puts viewers in Steve’s shoes on his first night in jail, and in the surrealism of having an “honest” civil servant point to you in a courtroom and scream “monster.” But the film plays as much with your perception of Steve as the world around him. The truth is that we’re witnessing a young man who’s still in the process of forming his identity when detectives knock on his parents’ door. Steve doesn’t really quite know who he is yet other than someone who wants to experience the world as an artist, so we experience that indecision through his malleability. Hence the film withholding Steve’s actual events of the robbery that left a man dead until the very end.
There is lip service in Steve’s film class paid to Rashomon—an Akira Kurosawa film about the unreliability of perceptions and personal truths in relation to a crime—but the actual nuance of the film largely comes from Harrison, a star in the making. The complicated emotions Steve feels about a life torn asunder, and his understanding of the pressures placed on him long before the cops got involved, form an invisible weight constantly hanging from Steve’s posture, whether he’s in the courtroom or in rose-tinted flashbacks with his first date.
The rest of the troupe also adds a tactile quality. Wright, who is also a producer here, portrays a father withering before our eyes after he sees his son in chains. Ehle brings her usual intelligence to a performance that suggests deep waters beneath her still waters, and Washington has a near movie-stealing scene as “Bobo,” the man who actually pulled the trigger and a person who seems to have embraced the monster label thrust on him long ago. Like Harrison, the film’s long delay to the screen allows the actor to bring jarring contrast to the role after audiences have seen him in BlacKkKlansman and Tenet.
The movie’s best elements are so strong, they along with the film’s moody non-sequitur storytelling, overcome other less glowing choices by first-time feature director Mandler. One of the most popular music video directors of his generation—having worked with Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, Rhianna, and Justin Bieber, among others—the filmmaker brings a slick and sometimes overly chic look to what’s ultimately an intimate character study.
When it comes to actually depicting the crime or the horrors of being swallowed up by mass incarceration, Mandler reaches for a grounded naturalism befitting the story. And yet, when inside of the courtroom which will decide Steve’s fate, the director opts for a heightened reality where everything, including most characters’ wardrobe, is drenched in a monochrome gray.
“[There is] no space for gray in the court of law,” Steve’s voiceover narration needlessly adds. This heightened reality is contrasted yet again by music video-ready cityscape shots punctuating whenever Steve picks up a camera to tell his own story in flashbacks. Presumably the intent is to underline the pliancy of objective truth itself, with Steve’s own perceptions being colored by influences neither he or we fully understand. But as a gimmick, it’s a bit bromidic and suggests a young filmmaker with a great visual eye but an inability to yet make firm tonal choices.
Be that as it may, Monster is a promising debut and a poignant piece of cinema in its better moments. It opens up the tragically well-worn narrative of a young Black man being buried alive by a system, and attempts to tell the story strictly from the perspective of looking up from the six feet deep pit—finding urgency in the procedures that both our reality and fictions tend to accept as mechanized.
Monster is streaming on Netflix now.