Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Monster

13/05/21

Netflix

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.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

It Comes at Night

11/07/17

What is the disease that’s afflicting America? In Trey Edward Schults’ stylish dystopian fear-flick, it appears to be an airborne virus that’s decimating the population, and isolating survivors. Joel Edgerton stars as Paul, an ex-history teacher holed up in his family home with his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). They’re paranoid and distrustful, trapped in their sealed sanctuary, donning gas masks and carrying guns whenever they’re compelled to venture into the outside world.

Staggering into this powder-keg of neuroses is Will (Christopher Abbott), desperately seeking shelter for his young family. He, his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their infant son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), are reluctantly invited to move in, albeit with very strict parameters. But things are bound to go wrong.’Trust no-one,’ Paul tells Travis. ‘You can’t trust anyone except your family.’ Suspicion and wariness pervade every interaction: it’s a recipe for disaster.

The film is fiercely intense. Okay, so the allegory isn’t particularly subtle: the fear and ‘othering’ of outsiders is, in fact, the disease – and it’s the same one that’s afflicting the real America today. Scare-mongering about refugees, seeking to impose travel-bans: these isolationist behaviours do not auger well. Without trust and cohesion, society can’t work.

It’s a tightly crafted film, with a real sense of claustrophobia throughout. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is particularly mesmerising as the teenage boy, struggling to mature in a disintegrating world with no peers with whom to compare experiences. ¬†And I like that there are no ‘baddies’ here, just individuals seeking to protect themselves and their families, unwittingly destroying all that they hold dear. As their circle shrinks ever smaller, there is less and less to hold on to, and the ending (which I won’t spoil here) is beautifully bleak.

This is a sly, thought-provoking little film, with plenty to ponder and discuss after the credits roll.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield