Opening with the shooting of an unarmed African-American man in Brooklyn by a white police officer, 'Monsters and Men' follows the aftermath of this dramatic and violent event from the perspective of three characters; a bystander who filmed the shooting (Ramos), a seasoned local police officer (Washington), and one of the victim’s neighbours, a gifted teenage athlete (Harrison Jr.).
This is director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s debut feature film, and you can kind of tell, from its fragmentary, tripartite form. It could almost be broken down into three short films, each following one of the film's leads. This structure is effective though, and the connections from one narrative to the next are smoothly and stylishly done. Exploring this kind of narrative, with abounding moral ambiguities and ethical dilemmas, through the perspective of three very different men is a very compelling and ambitious idea.
However, the characterisation and dialogue is thin and uneven, making 'Monsters and Men' less impactful than it could have been. The film takes an over-simplistic approach to the complex and serious issues around institutional police violence, and the merging of the personal and the political themes of the film is not fully successful. The characters are unambiguously good or bad – either monsters OR men – and all three of the leads are very sympathetic and principled, so as an audience member, we’re never too challenged in how we relate to their points of view. Whenever the action or dialogue becomes overtly political, it falters and reads without nuance, like A Very Special Episode of your favourite 1990s sitcom about racism. Given the naturalistic speech and performances that drive the more low-key scenes, the didactic, preachy style of these "learning moments" really jars. Similarly the occasional dream-like, harmonious reveries overlaid with sentimental music and soft-focus lighting, which show characters playing sports or just having a nice time with their families amidst all the strife, feel like they’re from a different film.
Regardless, all three of the leads are never less than captivating, and they elevate even the most cloying, cliched material they’re given. Anthony Ramos (recently seen as Lady Gaga’s BFF in 'A Star is Born') is natural and charming, while 'BlacKkKlansman' star John David Washington continues his recent upwards ascent by playing a conflicted local police officer.
The final third of the film is where the film comes into its own, driven by Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s impactful and charismatic performance as Zyrick, a high school baseball star who becomes newly politically engaged as a result of the shooting. Zyrick’s arc feels hopeful and balanced in a way the first two don’t, and it’s easier to track his mentality and motivations. It’s maybe useful to consider how the film’s themes of racial profiling, systemic inequality and figuring out one’s place in the world, which appear over-simplified when adult characters are grappling with them, play a little better when a kid is trying to figure them out. (This bears out in the recent 'The Hate U Give', which also follows a teenager’s attempt to process an incident of racially-motivated police violence.) This section also features the strongest scenes in 'Monsters and Men': a well-choreographed peaceful protest, shot with subtly-building tension, and the emotionally-driven climax which, if not fully satisfying, at least feels empowering – a coda for the film as a whole.
Ambitious and well-intentioned, if uneven and lacking in nuance, 'Monsters and Men' tells an important and compelling story which builds to a strong conclusion and marks writer/director Green as one to watch.