Monsters and MenReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/10/18 00:13:31
I'm trying to get better about not judging movies exclusively on how effectively they tell a story, since the medium can do more, as well as just trying to absorb when shown things outside my own experience, no matter what the medium. It's a hard habit to break, or even bend, because "Monsters and Men" still had me fidgeting, like there's not much to it. It feels well-intentioned but unfocused, like the filmmakers had an idea but not a hook for the audience.It doesn't open in a bad situation, introducing the audience to Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos), a street hustler in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of New York City, although he's trying for something a little more stable so he can provide for his girlfriend Marisol (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and their daughter. He's either in the right or wrong place at the wrong time when he sees some cops arresting Darius "Big D" Larson (Samel Edwards) while he's selling individual cigarettes, recording the incident on his phone and racing home when the shot is fired. He knows he'll have the police on his back if he posts it, but Big D was a neighborhood fixture and it wasn't right. The fallout from that decision is felt by everyone in the neighborhood, including Officer Dennis Williams (John David Washington), an African-American policeman in the 74th precinct who knows full well that not everyone is treated equally and has a hard time reconciling his ideals and practical considerations. Then there's Zyric (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high-school baseball phenom who walks past the memorial to Big D on the way home, and while he knows it's probably wise to keep his head down, it eats at him, until he asks an activist classmate (Chanté Adams) what he can do to help.
Each of these stories takes up roughly a third of the movie, with writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green moving from one point of view to another with hand-offs that emphasize how relatively isolated these stories are from each other (although it's also worth mentioning that both changes in perspective involve Dennis as a passive observer, something of a quiet indictment of how much good cops can or will do). It allows all three protagonists to take center stage for a while, all displaying an impressive ability to let the audience see their minds work. Anthony Ramos is especially interesting to watch as Manny; he seems more in flux from the start, his charisma and confidence tested in ways that the other characters aren't, hints of panic making him feel a little more threatened and unpredictable. It's a more active sort of performance, admittedly, than John David Washington and Kelvin Harrison Jr., but Washington does good work as the cop who oscillating between quietly and tensely holding his tongue, while Harrison and Chanté Adams capture the cool determination of the new generation of activist teens.
All three segments end with a decision but very little immediate sense of resolution, and that's not necessarily a bad thing; the movie is ultimately not so much about the actions that can cause change but about ideas and how they affect those who encounter them. It's most powerful, if understated, in Zyric's segment, and perhaps some of the what's effective about the story of the teenager who might sensibly leave well-enough alone is how Dennis's section separates it from Manny's so thoroughly, so that what Manny got out there takes on a life of its own. He isn't forgotten, but he becomes somewhat more abstracted, which isn't how movies generally work. As a result, Monsters and Men is perhaps a movie that gets better on the ride home.
It's still got some problems, and not just because there are stretches when nothing much happens. Chief among them is the decision not to actually show the video of the shooting that sets things in motion, especially since the incident itself is clearly meant to be a composite of a few infamous real-life events, which means it's already specific in the audience's mind. There's power in the hypothetical, but so much of the movie is about how characters are affected by shooting or watching this specific video that not showing it feels like trying to speak in to general a sense to say much of anything rather than a defense against "well, maybe in that exact case..." It may be a no-win proposition, but it's a situation where you can see the storytellers' hands when they're otherwise trying to make you feel like a fly on the wall.There's a compelling, strong idea at the heart of this movie, good enough to be worth mulling over for a while after it ends, and nobody on-screen ever seems any less than completely real. It's one spark away from coming fully to life, but still has plenty to offer.
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