‘Monster’ Review: Kelvin Harrison Jr. Tries to ‘Rashomon’ Himself Out of a Messy Courtroom Drama

Anthony Mandler’s “Monster” has burnt through the bulk of its running time before the first-time filmmaker opts to finally do away with any subtleties. The messy drama has already played fast and loose with time and perspective, shifting between bleak courtroom-set scenes and more emotive flashbacks that explain how budding teenage filmmaker Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) has ended up on trial as an accessory to armed robbery and murder. Finally, however, it seems as if Mandler just gives up and goes for the nuclear option: the “Rashomon” choice.

Given the film’s bent toward the most literal of cinematic tropes and tricks — Steve tries to dream his way out of his horrible predicament by frequently pretending it’s all just a screenplay he’s writing in his head — it’s not the most shocking of choices, but it’s certainly a blunt one. While that storytelling conceit likely made more sense in the story’s original form, as a well-regarded 1999 novel by Walter Myers that was partially written as an actual screenplay, on the screen, it feels like yet another cheap way through a story demanding much more nuance. 

Throughout the film, Mandler flashes back to Steve’s favorite pastime: film club meetings at his fancy Manhattan high school, where he and his best pals watch and chat about movies with beloved teacher Mr. Sawicki (Tim Blake Nelson). It’s through movies — watching them, making them, talking about them — that Steve derives meaning, we’re often told, a good-intentioned if ham-fisted fixation for a story that has other, deeper issues at the forefront. Mandler toys with the “Rashomon” thing throughout “Monster,” as we’re firmly lodged in Steve’s perspective throughout, and the script (from Radha Blank, Janece Shaffer, and Cole Wiley) endeavors to only reveal important details as the young defendant sees fit.

That’s a fine enough idea, if not a particularly original one, and the “Rashomon” twist only exacerbates that, but its execution is lacking in other ways. Steve’s internal monologue, the screenplay he sees in his head, is translated into a dull voiceover that, paradoxically, only puts us at a remove from Steve. Harrison is one of our finest young actors, capable of eliciting great empathy and always conveying deep interiority, and saddling him with a derivative monologue only serves to take us out of his head, and mostly out of his performance. Steve may want to see things at a distance, but that’s a storytelling conceit that only flattens the film.

Funnily enough, it’s rapper and producer ASAP Rocky (here credited under his birth name, Rakim Mayers) in the rare acting role, who is most able to convey his own internal conflict through a flick of the eyes or a turn of his mouth. His character is only ever seen through Steve’s eyes, and yet Mayers’ charismatic turn offers the best, most nuanced performance in the film. Harrison is capable of similar work, but the choice to spend so much of his time delivering overly dramatic monologues — which seem to be the product of a rough adaptation from the source material rather than inspired by any astute creative choice — diminish his talents.

Still, there are moments of understated power throughout the film, particularly in its jittery opening moments, as Steve is hauled into jail. A grim cop asks what what his gang affiliation is (not even if he’s in a gang) and what disease he might have (“AIDS?” he asks, emotionless), as Steve tries mightily to stay composed. Early interactions with his lawyer, an understated Jennifer Ehle, are also compelling, and Mandler shows a real knack for elevating the workaday grammar of cross-examination scenes.

Eventually, “Monster” lands on an obsession with “truth” that ties uneasily back to the “Rashomon”-ish plotting. Steve is told that things will be OK if only he can be true to himself and can somehow convey that elemental truth to the jury. It’s an idea that both makes general sense — if we’re to believe that Steve is a good kid, it would follow that he wouldn’t do something “bad,” he can’t be a so-called monster — and is also profoundly and painfully out of touch with the way the justice system actually operates. Steve and his lovely family (including Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson as his shellshocked parents) appear baffled by the twists and turns heaped on them by both the police and the court, and the film’s decision to make all of that a product of a vague need for honesty is jarring, to say the least.

Perhaps the film is just a product of a different, if still very, very recent time. “Monster” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 (somewhat confusingly, Harrison and a pre-“Tenet” John David Washington, who has a small role here, co-starred in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “Monsters and Men,” which also debuted at the festival and was released later that year). The film was first acquired by Entertainment Studios in April 2019, though Netflix stepped in and picked it up in November 2020. At one point after its first acquisition, it was retitled “All Rise”; Netflix chose to revert the title to “Monster” after the streaming giant picked it up. Three years is a long time, especially these days, but even in 2018, reviews of the film balked at its gloominess and distracting filmmaking. It has not aged well.

Mandler, a music video director making his feature debut, obviously has a skill when it comes to making shorter, flashier work, a bit like the short films we see Steve crafting. That he — and his young subject — would gravitate to classic cinematic twists doesn’t surprise, but it does hobble “Monster” from becoming its own thing, free of expectations and preconceived notions, the very monsters that lurk around every corner of this misbegotten drama.

Grade: C+

“Monster” is now streaming on Netflix.

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