Courtroom dramas can be a bit of a mixed bag. Some can turn out to be cinematic masterpieces, such as 12 Angry Men, A Time to Kill, or this past year’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. Others can have a little too much schmaltz and play too much to the camera. The fact remains courtroom dramas have left an indelible mark on cinema for decades. Monster is the latest courtroom drama.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Waves, Luce, It Comes at Night) plays a New York City teen who has aspirations of being a filmmaker. He has a girlfriend and is a good son to his parents (Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson). One fateful night, he ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. A bodega he goes to buy a soda in after school gets robbed by some neighborhood thugs. Witnesses say he was at the scene as a lookout. He has to go to a trial to fight for his life for murdering the bodega owner.
Harrison Jr. has proven in his short career he has what it takes to do great dramatic work. He can bring himself to react accordingly to whatever situation he is in on-screen, whether it be to bring tears or get angry or even be happy with his family or loved ones. He does very similar work in Monster as well. He is a very talented actor who is someone to watch in recent years. Awards are bound to come his way for sure, but not for Monster, in which he is good but not great.
Anthony Mandler is primarily a music video director and has also done some commercial work in his career. This is the first feature film he has directed. He sets most of the film in a grey indistinguishable courtroom. I guess this is to show there are no differences between the plaintiffs in the murder case against the bodega owner. Greys are in the middle of black and white. The rest of the film is shown at night or with vivid colors using the sun or streetlights. Showing there is light for Harrison Jr.’s character. The two distinctly different ways to film the movie were very noticeable to me. The cinematography by David Revlon is gorgeous outside and inside it’s drab and dull. I think this was a great choice by Mandler. It shows he’s got experience behind the camera.
Mandler also assembles a great cast besides its leads: John David Washington as one of the bodega robbers, Jennifer Ehle as the protagonist’s public defender, Tim Blake Nelson as a film teacher, and Jjarrel Jerome as another street thug. This is just the tip of the iceberg for the cast. It makes sense all of these talented actors and musicians wanted to work with Mandler. His career as a video and commercial director has proven he knows his way around a set even though this is his film directorial debut.
Cole Wiley, Janece Shaffer, and Radha Blank’s (The 40 Year Old Version) screenplay was based on a novel by Walter Dean Meyers. It won some literacy awards after it was published in 1999/2000. The story is pretty much straightforward. It’s about a kid trying to get out of being involved in a robbery and murder of a bodega owner. The film plays out very simply as this. The drama is there and the courtroom scenes are done very effectively to get across the gravity of the situation. The film just doesn’t go that extra length to get the tragedy and loss of the bodega owner’s story. He is an afterthought in this film until the very end. It focuses slowly on Harrison Jr.’s character and the other men on trial. I would have liked to see more of a well-rounded script/story.
Monster is a solid film that deals with very emotional topics, especially in today’s society. The story is pretty much painted by numbers, even though it’s effective in getting across its message about inner-city violence. The acting by all is serviceable with Harrison Jr. Wright and Hudson as the standouts. The two different filmmaking styles stood out to me the most to show the stark grey interior of the courtroom and the vivid colors of the outdoors with the lights and sun. This film isn’t the best courtroom drama, but it’s far from the worst. It’s a very good first outing for Mandler.
Dan Skip Allen