Based on the award-winning novel by Walter Dean Myers, the drama is a biting, if myopic, commentary on the flawed nature of the criminal justice system
More than three years since its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Anthony Mandler’s Monster is more relevant now than it ever was. For one, the story of a black teen caught on the wrong side of a racially unjust criminal justice system has become an on-screen staple; a case study in how art imitates life.
And yet, this latest Netflix release seems to be influenced more by some of its forgettable predecessors rather than focusing on the ones which did impress. The film is essentially a courthouse drama, where scenes from the past and present are inter-cut at a dizzying pace, to shape a narrative that tries hard to engage its viewers.
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Set in Harlem, the film’s protagonist Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a likeable 17-year old who attends an elite high school and aspires to be a filmmaker. Soon, he finds himself in a fix. He is accused of being an accessory to murder after an attempted robbery of a departmental store goes awry. Harmon whole-heartedly pleads his innocence despite his friends turning on him.
Subsequently, he is racially profiled and left for the gallows until the steadfast defence lawyer Katherine O’Brien (Jennifer Ehle) steps in to attempt a timely rescue. O’Brien is met with firm opposition from the state’s attorney Anthony Petrocelli (Paul Ben-Victor) who brands the young Harmon as a ’monster’ and assures himself of the criminal nature of the teenager by mumbling, “He looks the part to me”.
As his parents (Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson) watch from the sidelines, Harmon grapples with the question of his self-worth, desperately questioning his humanity while trying to make sense of the reality he finds himself in.
Led by Kelvin Harrison Jr., the central cast members are at the top of their game, delivering believable performances and setting the stage for a morally-charged tale of justice and criminality in a world marred by racial inequality. Harrison’s portrayal of the troubled Harmon is simplistic yet powerful, etching out the teenager’s vulnerabilities with a certain degree of ease that can leave one spellbound.
Paul Ben-Victor, previously spotted in critically acclaimed productions like The Wire and The Irishman, appears menacing and enthrals viewers with his poise and dialogue delivery, intensifying the central conflict in the story. To top it off, high-profile cameos from popular rappers like ASAP Rocky and Nas help in boosting the production’s east coast credentials and how.
- Director: Anthony Mandler
- Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jennifer Hudson, Jeffrey Wright
- Duration: 99 minutes
- Storyline: A smart, likeable, 17-year-old film student from Harlem sees his world turned upside down when he’s charged with a murder. The film follows his dramatic journey through a complex legal battle
Separately, David Devlin’s cinematography, which implements unconventional camera angles and unique point-of-view shots, adds to the ensuing drama, making audiences squirm in their seats while some of the high tension moments play out on screen.
Despite prior speculation, the film’s script is not based on true events. Rather, it is inspired by a Walter Dean Myers novel of the same name, which was the recipient of the inaugural Michael L. Printz Award for young adult literature in 1999. However, Myer’s addition to the list of writers involved with the project has not yielded the desired effect.
This can be attributed to the erstwhile ad-filmmaker Mandler’s ineptitude in utilising the resources at his disposal. Case in point, the happenings within the courtroom — which seem to make up for the general lacklustre nature of the entire film — harps on the unnecessary need to project a state of heightened tension, only to boil down to a predictable climax.
From covering issues of ghettoization of neighbourhoods to the complexities of life in prison, Monster, rather than delving into the intricate details of the world it is set in, tries to find black and white answers to the seemingly complex problems it tries to address.
To sum up, morally charged films on socio-cultural issues are a dime a dozen in the online world of streaming platforms. To stand out from the rest would entail breaking new ground.
Rather than taking a crack at the same, Monster opts for a rather myopic approach, seeking to simply pander to the ‘woke’ audiences, rather than carving a distinct niche for itself. Its wasted potential is a testimony to the brand of filmmaking it puts on display— a kind that can garner one’s attention temporarily but is unable to make a prominent impression.
Monster is currently streaming on Netflix