Review: Long-delayed, beautifully crafted ‘Monster’ is, unfortunately, timelier now than ever
Don’t be put off by its generic and overused — if ultimately appropriate — title. “Monster” is a terrific film: a strong, absorbing, beautifully performed and crafted social drama that, unfortunately, proves even timelier today than when it was shot in 2017. (The movie, first seen at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in a somewhat longer version, was once set for a 2019 theatrical release but eventually landed at Netflix, where it premieres Friday.)
Based on the 1999 young adult novel of the same name by Walter Dean Myers, the film follows the travails of 17-year-old Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a budding filmmaker who lives with his loving, vigilant parents (Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson) and younger brother (Nyleek Moore) in Harlem but attends Stuyvesant High, an elite magnet school in Lower Manhattan.
He’s a smart, talented, careful kid with a bright future. That is, until, seemingly out of the blue, he’s charged with felony murder in connection with the death of a nearby bodega owner during a violent robbery.
Steve, of course, pleads innocent to claims that he was the “lookout” during the crime committed by charismatic neighborhood gangster James King (Rakim Mayers, a.k.a. rapper ASAP Rocky), and King’s surly accomplice, Richard “Bobo” Evans (John David Washington).
But with little recourse, the terrified teen is sent to a New York prison to await trial for his alleged crime, as his earnest attorney (Jennifer Ehle) prepares his defense. Despite his apparent innocence, the lawyer explains why he’s in for an uphill battle: “Half that jury … decided that you’re guilty the moment they laid eyes on you. You’re young, you’re Black and you’re on trial. What else do they need to know?” It’s a piercing scene that, in one fell swoop, deftly encapsulates the Black experience within America’s criminal justice system.
Anthony Mandler, making his feature directing debut after a prolific career in commercials and music videos, effectively shuttles between the period of Steve’s trial and his everyday life leading up to it: We see his warm relationships with family, friends, girlfriend (Lovie Simone), film club teacher (Tim Blake Nelson) and especially his camera, through which he studies the world around him.
And it’s this love of capturing images that first connects him to the kinetic and compelling King, who engages Steve as a cool photographic subject — and a kind of arm’s-length trust forms between them. It’s one of several well-developed threads that weave together to entrap Steve and further complicate his legal defense. Suffice to say, there are several intriguing twists.
The script, by Cole Wiley, Janece Shaffer and Radha Blank (written before she blew up with “The Forty-Year-Old Version”), puts forth the story’s many cogent points and observations with urgency and vitality, avoiding the sort of didactic messaging a less dimensional take might have prompted.
A classroom discussion of Akira Kurosawa’s famed psychological crime drama, “Rashomon,” could have come off as heavy-handed but, as presented here, proves a prescient fit for one of “Monster’s” key themes: “Embrace your point of view and tell the truth — as you know it.”
Similarly, Mandler’s stylish visual sense rarely overtakes or undermines the proceedings but rather helps immerse us in Steve’s camera-lens view of his world in ways that feel both authentic and evocative.
Harrison, in his first lead role before gaining widespread acclaim in such films as “Luce” and “Waves” (he’s also appeared in the TV series “Godfather of Harlem” and as Fred Hampton in “The Trial of the Chicago 7”), infuses Steve (and the character’s stirring narration) with a powerful, affecting mix of pain, fear, desperation, intellect and introspection. He’s a deeply watchable actor.
Other cast members who shot to fame soon after making this movie include Washington (“BlacKkKlansman,” “Tenet,” “Malcolm & Marie”) and Jharrel Jerome (an Emmy winner for the Central Park Five miniseries “When They See Us”), who plays a 15-year-old swept up in King’s dangerous world.
Wright is typically superb as Steve’s devoted, graphic designer dad; Paul Ben-Victor is spot-on as the trial’s aggressive, needling prosecutor; and rap icon Nasir “Nas” Jones impresses in a small but pivotal role as an inmate who befriends the imprisoned Steve.
“Monster” is a gripping and important film that commands and earns our attention.
Rating: R, for language throughout, some violence and bloody images
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: Available May 7 on Netflix
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