'Monster' Review: Powerful Crime Drama Finds The Intersection Of Race, Justice, And Storytelling [Sundance]

Ever since its publication in 1999, author Walter Dean Myers' award-winning novel Monster has be a favorite among young adults, providing them a glimpse into the world of Steve Harmon, a black teenager whose life is thrown into chaos when he is arrested and put on trial for taking part in a robbery gone wrong, resulting in the death of a Harlem bodega owner. The film adaptation from music video veteran and first-time filmmaker Anthony Madler is an ambitious, complex, and layered look at how the court system in America is virtually designed to keep defendants like Steve from every getting a chance at actual justice.

Moving among several timelines, Monster shifts from life before the robbery and Steve's eventual arrest to his early, terrifying days in prison and finally his trial. Adapted by Radha Blank, Cole Wiley, and Janece Shaffer, and masterfully edited by Joe Klotz, it becomes clear that all roads are leading to showing us exactly what happened on that faithful afternoon, revealing the true purpose of the story—to explore the ways in which people interpret and uncover the truth of singular moments that change their lives forever.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. (recently seen as the son in It Comes at Night) plays the 17-year-old Steve, who attends a private school and is deeply passionate about becoming a filmmaker, thanks in large part to a close relationship with his film teacher (Tim Blake Nelson), who instills in his students ideas about perspective and storytelling. (The teacher's on-the-nose screening of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon might be a bit too much, especially in a film as smart as this.) There's actually a sense throughout Monster that we might actually be watching a film made by Steve about his ordeal. There's a naked aggression and youthful energy that seems quite deliberate, and it wouldn't be surprising if Mandler was filtering his story through his protagonist's eyes.

Despite having seen countless movies in recent years about abusive law enforcement officers, Monster's idea of tackling the judicial system is quite refreshing. Steve is rudely introduced to the fundamentals of how the courts work and how to move through his trial by his attorney Katherine O'Brien (Jennifer Ehle), who spells out the cold realities and often shocking truths about Steve's situation. She's clear that the deck is stacked decidedly against the young man because he's "young, black and on trial," and that the jury sees him as someone who must be there for a reason. O'Brien also dismisses the idea of proving innocence as the ultimate goal. "You have to make them see you as a human being," she makes clear, a task much more difficult than Steve ever imagined. Being an honors student at a high-end school, living with his successful parents (Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson), and showing promise as a filmmaker mean nothing when you get thrown in prison. To the prosecutor and jury, he enters their frame of reference as a monster who is guilty to the core.

Coming from the world of music videos, Mandler is in a unique position to know which hip-hop artists show promise as actors, and he casts a pair of them to impressive results. Old-school rapper Nas plays fellow inmate Raymond "Sunset" Green, who helps Steve survive in prison, not simply giving him advice on not getting on someone's bad side, but helping him settle his mind to keep him from going crazy with anxiety, fear, rage, and depression. Monster offers a unique perspective on the prison experience by reminding us that inmates not only concern themselves with the day-to-day dangers of prison, but they fantasize about the lives they could be living on the outside, considering individual moments they don't get to experience, often because of one tragic mistake. Mandler captures the overwhelming, accumulating sadness of this way of living so remarkably that it's almost suffocating.

The other rapper on display here is ASAP Rocky (real name: Rakim Mayers), giving an explosive performance as William King, one of the neighborhood criminals who actually committed the robbery (the prosecution is accusing Steve of casing the bodega, giving a sign that the coast is clear and acting as lookout during the crime). The case is complicated by the fact that Steve and King are actually friendly to each other whenever they meet. King sees Steve with his camera as a chronicler of street life and a means to immortalize his status as a powerful force in the Harlem neighborhood. Although Steve's and his attorney downplay their friendship, we know that things are less cut and dry.

A great deal of Monster exists in the gray areas of certain pockets of Steve's life. Mandler holds off showing us the actual robbery because he wants that doubt to linger as to what exactly Steve's role was, and the closer we get to the reveal, the more nervous the viewer will likely be about the truth. Using an often-vicious inner monologue to give the audience a taste of how Steve is reacting to this unwelcome turn in his life is just one of the ways the filmmaker and Harrison build tension, anxiety and full-bore anger.

It becomes clear by Monster's end that no matter what the outcome of the trial, so much about Steve, his family, his friends and, above all others, the family of the bodega owner, is beyond repair. In choosing to pick apart the injustice of the justice system, the filmmakers land on the cold, harsh reality that, whatever the verdict, no one really wins, and everyone loses something in the process. This isn't a film in search of a happy ending; at best, the story hopes that those hurt by these events can salvage relationships and faith in themselves after systematically being torn apart at every step of this process. It sounds gloomy and somber, it's true, but the emotionally rousing Monster does find threads of hope amid the despair. These days, that's often more than we're used to.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10