Rating: 2 out of 5.

In 2004 Charlize Theron famously won an Oscar for playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. The title was a sincere description of its protagonist. However, it’s far more cynical and not to be taken at face value here. This long-delayed melodrama debuted at Sundance in 2018. Netflix acquired the film and released it on May 7. A team of screenwriters — Radha Blank (The 40-Year-Old Version), Cole Wiley, and Janece Shaffer — adapt the award-winning 1999 novel by Walter Dean Myers.

The “monster” of the title is Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a 17-year-old black honors student who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Steve now faces life in prison. He’s on trial charged with a felony as an accessory to murder. He was allegedly acting as a lookout for the crime. James King (A$AP Rocky) and Richard “Bobo” Evans (John David Washington) gunned down a store owner during their robbery of a bodega. Osvaldo Cruz (Jharrel Jerome) also stands accused, but like Bobo, he takes a plea deal.

The list of characters continues. Maureen O’Brien (Jennifer Ehle) is the defense lawyer who represents Steve. Anthony Petrocelli (Paul Ben-Victor) is the lawyer for the prosecution. Mom (Jennifer Hudson) and Dad (Jeffrey Wright) are devastated. While in jail, Raymond “Sunset” Green (Nas) is a fellow prisoner who gives Steve advice. The narrative also details Steve’s life before the killing. He is an aspiring film student attending the prestigious Stuyvesant High School. Leroy Sawicki (Tim Blake Nelson) is Steve’s teacher who attests to his strong character at the trial. We follow the teen as he navigates through a complex legal battle. His very future is at stake.

The chronicle is the portrait of a victim captive to a flawed American judicial system. Steve’s defense attorney has already decided the jury will connect race with guilt. Steve’s public defender laments an unequal system. Even before the trial, she characterizes the mindset of the jury as such: “You’re young. You’re Black. You’re on trial.” She’s preparing her client for an inequitable fight. Meanwhile, Steve’s thoughts can be heard in an awkward voice-over that sounds like text directly lifted from the book. Steve over-emphasizes points of view that are abundantly clear from the action on screen. The narration doesn’t help this heavy-handed saga. The screenplay favors an oversimplification of human beliefs and attitudes. Subtlety and nuance be damned.

A courtroom drama centered on a black teenager’s introduction to American justice could be the basis for a powerful account. At least the ensemble of actors is impressive. Perhaps the idea itself was enough to attract this stellar cast. Many of their careers have only become more distinguished since this movie was originally produced. It’s not hard to see why it sat on the shelf for so long. They do what they can with the material provided. Unfortunately, the treatment of a serious issue is clumsy and simplistic. Filmmaker Anthony Candler is a veteran music video director. He injects his style into the proceedings, but his guidance is amateurish. The pacing and scene transitions call more attention to the director’s hand than to the importance of the story. Monster is a missed opportunity.


4 Responses to “Monster”

  1. Eric Robert Wilkinson Says:

    All I can think of reading about this is Waves and Luce two films made around the same time which star Kelvin and have similar setups


  2. All these stars, I was hoping for better. Disappointed. 2 ⭐️


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