What we are about to tell you might come as a shock or, if you know the secret already, it will be more of a repetition than anything but here goes: Kelvin Harrison Jnr is an acting titan who is arguably Hollywood’s best “under the radar” young actor plying his trade right now. Some of his turns in recent years have been amongst those who have garnered more high-profile acclaim or walked away with the big prizes and while a couple should have seen him in that company, he continues to thrive in almost everything he does. Alas, despite his performances, some of the films he has been in haven’t been all winners, a similar pattern and trend that continues in Monster, the (seemingly unexplained) long-delayed film in which he takes the lead.
Monster tells the story of Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an aspiring filmmaker who is a hugely popular figure at his high school, where he is also an honours student, spurred on by his teacher Leroy Sawicki (Tim Blake Nelson) to explore his stories and his aspirations behind the camera, as well as his supportive family (Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Hudson as Mr and Mrs Harmon) who want him to be his best self. One day, however, an inadvertent crossing of paths with a killing in a local convenience store sees him accused of felony murder and facing life in prison.
Circling back to Harrison Jnr, his turn here is wonderful, simply awesome in every way. Every facet, every minutia, every mannerism and thought of Steve’s is absolutely note perfect and commands the film whenever he is on-screen. You can feel the joy he gets from talking about films with his teachers and fellow students, the way he idolises his father and his aspirations to be just as amazing as he is along his own path. And, of course, the pain, suffering, anxiety and confusion of the path he finds himself on when faced with jail and his part – whether true or not – in a murder.
Indeed, such is the mystery of the character and Harrison Jnr‘s performance that you, like the jury of his peers and those around the case, aren’t quite sure of guilt or not, and that power to bring those people and us as an audience into that mindset is astounding. Heck, if anyone saw his magnificent turn in the hugely underappreciated Waves, you’ll know this already.
What holds the film back from following him into the realms of magnificence is that it struggles to follow through with its intentions. Directed by pathos and beauty by Anthony Mandler, Monster is a two-face of a film: it’s good and bad in equal measure, culminating in a courtroom drama that while feeling taut and smart and exploring the ever-escalating flaws in the justice system (to put it mildly) against black people, feels underdeveloped and repetitive. If they had been able to harness those themes and make them sharper, this would have been something special. It may also explain the strange disparity between its initial debut and gathering dust on a shelf.
Crime, Drama | USA, 2018 | 15 | Netflix Original | 7th May 2021 | Dir.Anthony Mandler | Kelvin Harrison Jr, John David Washington, Jennifer Ehle, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson, Tim Blake Nelson