When it comes to race relations in the USA, is there such a thing as a middle ground? And does inaction automatically decide a ‘side’ for you? Nuanced notions of authority, activism and the tensions of living in a cultural melting pot are all explored in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s restrained and resonant debut Monsters and Men.
Set in a localised area of New York, the film centres on a community dealing with the fallout of the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. Playing on the audience’s grim familiarity with such an event, Green presents a triptych of characters who, in their own way, are embroiled and personally affected by the killing. Half an hour is devoted to each character, Green wielding different perspectives of the event to construct a film that may not completely satisfy at the time of viewing, but has the power to keep its questions lingering in your cranium long after.
The film opens with John David Washington’s Dennis being pulled over for seemingly no reason by the police. Shot in close-up from the passenger seat, the camera lingers on Dennis’ face as it morphs from singing along to Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’ to tense apprehension to weathered acceptance. Dennis pulls his top over what seems to be a gun, gives over his driving license – all is in order – before pulling off and flipping over his wallet to reveal a police badge.
This first scene acts a strong opening statement by Green – laying bare his approach to the visual language of the film, but also the contradicting ideologies with which the film wrestles. The close-up angles and shallow depth of field pervades and gives Monsters and Men a real street-level intimacy, chiming with the film’s repeated motif of looking, the camera almost acting as another member of this tight-knit urban community. A New York native himself, Green understands and trusts his characters enough to present their individual political/social awakenings in an unbiased light, simply using the killing as a way of unifying them in a subtle and effective manner.
Much like the opening scene, events often happen suddenly with weighty implications, sometimes with no explicit reason, giving a sense of unpredictability and reality notably lacking in similar dramas. Green sprinkles the film with small, believable rug-pulls that enhance the film’s world and characters, even if it means sacrificing the tying up of all its narrative loose-ends – Manny’s (Anthony Ramos) section of the film being the most obvious example of this. Whilst this lack of narrative pay-off can be initially unsatisfying to watch (from years of being force-fed Hollywood-friendly stories), in the long term it’s a technique that works to demonstrate the unpalatable nature of injustice.
I’ve tried to shy away from giving away too much of the plot of Monsters and Men. Being a political film that tells its story through a personal lens, the idea of over-analysing the events of the film risks me imposing my view of the film on you – which would be directly going against the nuanced, personal response the film is trying to (and successfully in my case) illicit.
Writer/Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Starring: John David Washington, Anthony Ramos, Kelvin Harris Jr.
Release Date: 11th January