Monster review: Is the new Netflix movie worth watching?


It’s almost groaningly unsurprising to see that Walter Dean Myers’ novel Monster was adapted into a movie. The 1999 National Book Award nominee interweaves stylings of first-person diary entries with the screenplay format to contrast subjective and objective narrative beats. I’d imagine film industry bigwigs and Hollywood writers alike must have seen this structure as a gift on a silver platter. But since Monster’s premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, its pickup in 2019, and its re-pickup and distribution in 2021 on Netflix, this intriguing gift has apparently been shelved, then boxed up and shoved into the attic corner.

Said outcome can’t be what director Anthony Mandler had in mind for his debut feature Monster, out on Netflix today. Its delayed-release comes off as an enigma, one that ideally points to refreshing vision of an engaging story, but more likely invokes virtue signaling and even opportunism. Monster dulls down the complex questions posed in Myers’ novel by painting its answers in broad, grayscale strokes, forgoing any deep examination of truth or character in favor of visual aesthetic.

Mandler’s debut feature (he’s a music video director, and it shows) depicts the story of Steve Harmon (a solid Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a 17-year-old film student at one of Harlem’s most prestigious schools. He gets chummy with wise gang member Will King (A$AP Rocky, who is utterly charming), who allegedly enlists Steve into a robbery scheme that turns bloody. Steve is arrested for murder and must contend with – and figure a way out of – his new environment that could all too easily become a permanent one.

Is Monster worth watching on Netflix?

Monster wants to be about so many things, including the American legal system, Harlem, and race relations. Of much import to the form and function of the novel is its dissection of truth. Steve’s relaying of experience to the reader is deeply subjective, blistering, and rough, his interactions with acquaintances filtered through an unmistakably personal voice. The Harmon in the novel stands at a far cry from the Steve in the film, the latter of whom has far less of a sense of his own humanity and goals.

In Monster, Steve’s eye behind the camera never broadens beyond “2010s music video vibezzz”, even at the behest of his film professor Mr. Sawicki, whose film analyses are as confounding as (and sometimes unintentionally reflecting on) the film he’s in.

Speaking of, Tim Blake Nelson’s character is just one of a long list of supporting characters who serve as vague extensions of the various facets of Steve’s place in the world. Least offensively is John David Washington, whose scenery-chewing performance as a more intense gang member solidifies Denzel’s son as the next movie star. His Bobo is given about the same amount of screen time as Jeffery Wright and Jennifer Hudson, who play Steve’s parents. Everyone’s fine but desperately underused.

This leaves few things for Monster to securely latch onto. By pivoting back and forth between flashback (in Harlem) and present tense (jail), Monster presents itself with the potential to say something notable about objective reality or masculinity, like The Night Of before it. Or it could go full drama, presenting the utter despair of what it means to be a boy growing up incarcerated, like When They See Us. Monster just never fully gets there, perhaps best exemplified by the film’s brainless choice to divert from a defining moment between Harmon and his attorney at the ending of the novel.

Choices like the one above in Monster tend to miss the point of the novel and of the American zeitgeist in which this movie is released, resulting in a film that feels hopelessly unremarkable, destined to fall through the cracks. Here’s hoping that Steve Harmon’s own feature would be better than this one.

Next. 50 best Netflix movies to watch right now. dark