Review: Uneven 'Monster' tells familiar tale worth hearing
Courtesy of Netflix
Stuck in distribution hell after its 2018 Sundance debut, Anthony Mandler’s familiar but searing social justice piece “Monster” doesn’t feel dated. Featuring an ensemble who, at the time weren’t household names, Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“Luce” and “Waves”) John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman” and “Tenet”), and rapper A$AP Rocky (or Rakim Mayers) “Monster” has only risen in statute. Telling the narrative of a young Black man getting accosted and tried for a crime he swears he didn’t commit. In the wake of the Derek Chauvin trail, Netflix, who snagged the film from Entertainment Studios, couldn’t have picked a better time to release it.
Based on the 1999 novel by the late Walter Dean Myers, and originally called “All Rise,” Harrison Jr. plays Steve Harmon, a charismatic and likable film student studying at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. He comes from a sensible background: his parents, played affectionately by Jennifer Hudson and Jeffrey Wright, make a decent living, and his college aspirations are within reach. But Steve’s entire worldview crumbles when he’s arrested for a questionable role in the murder of a local bodega owner. Within a blink, those aspirations are shattered.
Mandler splits “Monster” into dueling segments, intercuting segments of the trial with flashbacks of Steve’s livelihood and his time in county jail. The prosecution’s primary goal is to paint the teenager as a relentless thug despite the evidence indicating otherwise. Too often, society has grown accustomed to watching the legal system chew up innocent Black men and throw ‘em to the wolves. Mandler couldn’t have envisioned the state of change happening in our country when he made the film years ago, but the point remains the same: it’s a cycle that keeps repeating itself. Harrison Jr. is flawless playing the fractured teen facing the reality of living his entire life behind bars. The actor’s raw vulnerability is of a rare breed, elevating a conventional and stagey climax where the outcome might come as a shock.
Likewise for his co-stars Washington and Rocky - the real culprits - who crush each silver of interaction they’re afforded. But Mandler’s visual intuitiveness and structure keep “Monster” from detouring into melodramatic territory. It can’t resist indulging in its YA heritage, which can make for an uneven presentation, but outstanding performances and a timely premise make this a familiar tale worth hearing.
MONSTER is now streaming on Netflix