Sometimes a film can have the correct pieces and all the elements are presented in the correct way but it just doesn’t come together in the way it should. Anthony Mandler’s Monster features a timely story and a great ensemble of performances, but never coalesces to deliver anything other than a surface-level impact.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. stars as Steve Harmon, a well-meaning honor student with a passion for filmmaking. The film shifts between Steve’s backstory and his felony trial for accessory to murder. Steve narrates the entire experience as giving direction and script dictation for the audience. Steve parents (Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson) try to wrestle with Steve’s situation while his lawyer Maureen (Jennifer Ehle) tries to set him at ease while straining to earn his freedom.
The film avoids showing Steve as a perfect human and model citizen. He stays out late, hops subway turnstiles, and smokes weed with his friends; just like a normal teenager. His normality makes the crime itself one that he seems further incapable of committing. As the flashbacks continue, Steve’s relationship with James King (A$AP Rocky) is fleshed out, shown more of a street acquaintance than an actual friend. King and his associate “Bobo” Evans (John David Washington) leech on to Steve, leading to his arrest.
Steve’s voiceover and flashbacks are more meditative and sensitive than informational. Though they do give plenty of backstory, we are given rare insight into Steve’s worldview and what is expected of him by his peers and environment. He often stops to view his surroundings through a director’s lens, which allows Mandler and cinematographer David Devlin a chance to showcase some beautiful shots through the eyes of their protagonist.
All the performances are stellar, from Ehle’s steady and unassuming lawyer, to Hudson’s motherly panic and comfort. A$AP Rocky proves very capable in a role larger than you would expect, while Washington makes a lasting impact in what ends up being a glorified cameo, as does Jharrel Jerome. Wright has some of the best moments of the film, including a repressively explosive monologue expressing what he wanted for his son as he grew up.
Without Harrison, this film doesn’t work at all. His steady and calming presence grounds the film and gives the audience a clear rooting interest. The question of his guilt never comes into question due to his clear characterization. Harrison has proved himself more than capable of carrying a film in the past and there is no reason to think he won’t eventually turn into a superstar actor.
The problem with the film lies in the general execution. Nothing feels in question about how things will conclude and even the climatic reveal comes across as so low-key, that it feels less like a reveal and more like a general misunderstanding of what has occurred. Even when the final credits roll, the audience is left with questions beyond what is presented. Are there deeper implications? What are the consequences of everything that has happened? The film blows past all of this and wraps things up in a nice and tidy bow.
Though a showcase for competent direction and stellar performances, Monster fails to reach its potential and say something deeper about incarceration or the American legal system.