The 400-Word Review: Monster
By Sean Collier
May 8, 2021
The Netflix film “Monster” has many observations about the criminal justice system, particularly the ways in which it interacts (abrasively) with America’s institutionalized racism. The overall theme of those observations, though, is broad: The principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty, the film argues, is no more than a pleasant fantasy.
When Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) appears in the courtroom, accused of assisting with a robbery that leads to a murder, the jury has probably assumed he’s guilty. The prosecuting attorney certainly (Paul Ben-Victor) has. His own defense attorney (Jennifer Ehle) insists her feelings on his innocence are immaterial. Even Harmon’s father (Jeffrey Wright) takes a long, weighty pause when Steve asks, point-blank, if he believes in his own son’s innocence.
Harmon, a shy, 17-year-old aspiring filmmaker, is on trial alongside William King (A$AP Rocky), a casual friend from his Harlem neighborhood. King fell into the orbit of a small-time crook (John David Washington, in a brief performance), leading to a scheme to rob a bodega; Steve, the prosecution says, served as a lookout, checking the store for cops and security.
The robbery went sideways when the clerk pulled a gun before being shot and killed in the ensuing scuffle. The prosecution brands both King and Harmon as monsters; among the film’s flaws is a prosecutor who’s far too much of a bulldog and a public defender who’s far too much of a crusader, but at least the positions are made clear.
The more artful (and, honestly, much better) “If Beale Street Could Talk” dove more meaningfully into these issues — particularly those around plea deals, a subject “Monster” only brushes against — but the new film has different intentions. Fundamentally, “Monster” is a courtroom drama, focused on Steve’s fate; the build to a verdict is intertwined with slowly progressing flashback vignettes, themselves building to the moment where we’ll learn what actually happened.
“Monster” is by no means a particularly deft film. The direction, in a feature debut from seasoned music-video helmer Anthony Mandler, is often lovely but not commanding. It’s also likely that much was lost in the adaptation (the source novel is by Walter Dean Myers), as evidenced by the high number of underwritten characters; Jennifer Hudson is here as Harmon’s mother, but barely makes a dent. Still, there’s an easy path to drama in a story such as this, and it’s followed, thoughtfully.
My Rating: 6/10
“Monster” is streaming on Netflix.