Steve (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a film student in New York, whose world is thrown into chaos when he's accused of murder. While his parents (Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson) do what they can to support him, Steve enters into a complex legal battle and comes face to face with the justice system...
Social issue dramas aren't anything new, nor is it a genre of movies that should be treated differently from any other.
'Monster' is coming at a topic and examining issues that should have as big a light shone on them as possible. Systemic racism in the US justice system, the dehumanising nature of the carceral state, youth culture - it's all thrown in the mix with 'Monster', but what comes out the other side is something that's far too laboured and uneven for it to be worth your time. When you look at movies like 'Fruitvale Station', 'If Beale Street Could Talk', or classic works like Spike Lee's 'Do The Right Thing' or John Singleton's 'Boyz N The Hood', you see what it can be.
'Monster', from the first act, feels like it's a movie that is heavily leaning into everything and is drawing attention to its choices all the time. The courtroom is coloured in black, grey, and white to showcase how arbitrary it all is. The lawyers frequently speak into different scenes, and the movie pings back and forth in time and layers different strands over one another. Director Anthony Mandler is primarily known for music videos, yet 'Monster' has none of the rhythm or sense of story that you'd expect. In fact, it has such pacing issues, and so frequently drowns itself in elaborate setups, that it loses the audience and feels uneven and frantic.
Yes, it is being told through the eyes of a film student and, in turn, it's going to have rough edges and have youthfully cliché choices, but that doesn't have to be sustained throughout. At some point, it's got to actually get down to the business of making a movie competently. After all, when you've assembled a cast of this magnitude and they're this game for it, you need to show up.
The script by Janece Shaffer and Colen C. Wiley does a great job of adapting Walter Dean Myers' novel, keeping the diary/screenplay format relatively intact and updating the cultural references and the overall palette from 1999 to 2018, when the movie was originally made.
It's a shame that the direction and editing is so mishandled, as the cast that's been drawn together could make something special. The always-reliable Jeffrey Wright gives a clean, understated performance, while both Nas and ASAP Rocky - credited by his real name, Rakim Mayers - have nuanced characters and give the movie a real sense of credibility. John David Washington, Tim Blake Nelson and Jennifer Ehle are all really strong actors and yet they're utilised in such a way that you get the sense another director would have known how to handle the wealth of talent available to them.
Though it has a talented cast, a decent script with a relevant story to tell, 'Monster' is far too heavy-handed with its direction and lacks some of the source text's subtlety, opting for more obvious choices than considered ones.