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Non-Review Review: Monsters and Men

Monsters and Men is an impressive theatrical debut for director Reinaldo Marcus Green, at least in technical sense.

There is an artfulness to Monsters and Men, an impressive level of craft. The compositions are striking and impressive. In particular, the closing shot of the film is an emotive and memorable visual that lingers as the closing credits role. If Monsters and Men is any indication, Green has a long and impressive career ahead of him. He demonstrates a keen eye for cinematic images and an intuitive knack for visual storytelling.

“I’m talkin’ to the man in the two-way mirror…”

Unfortunately, Monsters and Men is much less satisfying as a narrative experience than it is as a collection of shots and images. It is an ambitious and provocative piece of work, a narrative triptych that focuses on three very different characters affected in three very different ways by a police shooting in New York. Monsters and Men hopes to fashion a mosaic, to offer three fractured perspectives that might better illuminate the whole. Unfortunately, these individual stories don’t really work together and do not cohere into a singular or defining statement.

Monsters and Men undoubtedly has its heart in the right place as a piece of low-budget socially-conscious film making, but it simply cannot deliver on its ambitions. Although this ultimately undercuts the film, there are certainly worse flaws to have.

Feeling fenced in.

Monsters and Men can be broken neatly down into three sections of approximately the same length, each exploring the aftermath of a police shooting from three different points of view. Manny is a street hustler who happens to catch footage of the shooting on his phone. Dennis is a black police officer who finds himself in the complicated position of both enduring and defending the prejudices of his colleagues. Zyrick is a young student who becomes more politically engaged as a result of the shooting.

There is something to be said for the manner in which American popular culture is slowly and gradually coming to terms with these police shootings, how these are seeping into the popular culture and becoming something with which mainstream art can and must engage. The Hate U Give tackled the subject directly and engagingly, its didacticism forgivable considering the target audience of young adults. Widows took such a police shooting as a background event, a grim fact of life that reflected the reality of living in contemporary America.

Acting out activism.

Monsters and Men understands the enormity of the subject that it is tackling. After all, the very structure of the film suggests that these events are so profound and disturbing that one single perspective cannot hope to explain them or provide the necessary context. However, the issue with Monsters and Men is that it feels like it has very little to actually say about its subject matter, very little insight to grant. This is particularly true in the segments following Manny and Zyrick, which trod familiar ground in a very predictable manner.

The middle third of the film is by far the strongest. It benefits from the strongest central performance in the film, John David Washington playing Dennis. More than that, it has something to say about how and why these things happen beyond acknowledging the horror of it all. Dennis is a police officer who genuinely believes in what he does. However, he is also a black man who understands the sort of prejudice at work. Monsters and Men puts Dennis in a bind, catching him between those two positions and forcing him to make tough choices.

Fair cop?

Monsters and Men invites the audience to feel an incredible amount of sympathy for Dennis, trapped in an untenable position. A polite dinner party turns into a series of bitter allegations when debate turns to the shooting, and Dennis finds himself trying to defend his colleagues. “I thought you were one of the good ones,” his guest contemptuously complains before the evening comes to an end. Dennis seems to be genuinely trying to be “one of the good ones”, but has found himself in an impossible situation as a result.

There is a drama and a tragedy to the middle section of the film that is lacking from the two segments that sandwich it. There is, of course, value in documenting these horrific things that happen and there is, of course, value in portraying these sorts of events on screen for mass consumption. However, the segments focused on Manny and Zyrick lack the tension and the complexity of the sequence built around Dennis. Indeed, it is perhaps telling that Dennis is the only one of the three leads who comes close to capturing the paradox suggested by the title.

Crossing the tape.

This is a shame, because Monsters and Men suggests that Reinaldo Marcus Green is a directorial talent to watch. Monsters and Men looks beautiful. There is a little over-reliance on handheld shaky cam footage in the early sequences to suggest the intimacy of Manny’s life, but Green very skillfully captures the mundane beauty of simply passing through New York City. Light shines down on the characters and the landscape around them, suggesting a memory or a dreamscape.

The final third looks particularly impressive. Green opts to present Zyrick as a largely passive protagonist, which makes sense in the context of a narrative about political awakening. As a result, Zyrick is often silent as the camera follows him through his day. This is notable at various points, but especially in a meeting between Zyrick, his father and a talent scout, in which Zyrick has to be urged repeatedly to speak on his own behalf.

Reflecting on a crisis.

Green emphasises Zyrick’s withdrawn nature through a series of artful compositions, often positioning the camera to capture the characters who are talking over his shoulder. One particularly effective sequence has Zyrick getting changed in the locker room as his (white) team mates discuss the police shooting with all the tact that might be expected. Green creates a palpable sense of anxiety and claustrophobia around Zyrick, skillfully communicating the character’s psychology without resorting to clumsy exposition.

Indeed, Green might just be his own worst enemy. His direction is confident enough and assured enough that it communicates the point the segment much more clearly and concisely than the narrative itself. By the time that Zyrick’s story reaches its inevitable climax, the audience already understands why and how things are happening in the way that they are. The actually story itself feels largely irrelevant. Those shots of Zyrick are enough to make the film’s point on their own.

Monsters and Men is well-meaning and worthy. In fact, the second of its three sections is engaging and intriguing. However, the film doesn’t work as a narrative. It often feels like a collection of snapshots rather than a singular cohesive story.


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