A courtroom drama with a difference, Monster stands apart, mostly by virtue of its artful direction. Anthony Mandler’s thought-provoking story centres around seventeen year old Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jnr), a film student with a promising future. With wealthy parents and a place at a prestigious college, Steve’s a regular golden boy. But a recent robbery in a Harlem bodega has gone horribly wrong, a shopkeeper’s been murdered and Steve stands accused of acting as lookout for the perpetrators, James King (ASAP Rocky) and ‘Bobo’ Evans (John David Washington). A witness has placed Steve at the scene of the crime and he soon finds himself arrested.
It’s an unlikely fit. King and Evans are streetwise villains with previous form, but Steve has never been in trouble in his life. How can he possibly have become involved in something like this? As his lecturer, Leroy (Tim Blake Nelson), points out, this is a kid who inspires trust in everyone he meets. And yet… he’s been identified.
The conceit here is that all the events of the story are filtered through Steve’s distinctive point of view. As a filmmaker himself, he cannot resist presenting them as a sort of screenplay, complete with titles and camera directions. (Don’t worry, this is way better than I’ve made it sound – it’s an assured marriage between style and content, neither element allowed to outweigh the other.)
We follow him through his arrest, his subsequent incarceration and on to his trial, where his appointed defence attorney, Maureen O’ Brian (Jennifer Ehle), does her best to guide him through the pitfalls of a court appearance and keeps reminding him that the way he presents himself to the jury will be of paramount importance. In flashbacks, we also witness his interactions with King and Evans, the way he is drawn to them as subjects for a film project he’s working on, how he’s caught up in their ‘outlaw’ attitude. But he knows there’s a line between him and them, doesn’t he? And he’s surely never going to cross it…
Monster is ultimately about the allure of the forbidden, the different choices we face in our lives. It also has a lot to say about class – it effortlessly demonstrates how Steve’s privileged lifestyle affords him opportunities that many of his peers will never experience – and how it might be the single factor that stands between him and the unthinkable. Harrison Jnr is compelling in the lead role and Ehle provides a calm, but steely presence as the defender who believes in his innocence. Originally filmed in 2018 and showcased at the Sundance Festival the same year, Monster has had a long wait to find its audience, but it’s been worthwhile.
This is an assured and original drama with plenty to recommend it.