'Monsters and Men': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Anthony Ramos, left and John David Washington in 'Monsters and Men'
A stealth powerhouse.

Writer-director Reinaldo Marcus Green's topical first feature is a deep dive into a Brooklyn community reeling from the killing by police of an unarmed black man.

Ripped-from-the-headlines dramas often tend to be thuddingly earnest or too close to incendiary events to acquire the necessary perspective. But Reinaldo Marcus Green's supremely assured debut feature, Monsters and Men, deftly sidesteps those problems. The film draws inspiration from the 2014 death in Staten Island of Eric Garner at the hands of an over-zealous arresting officer, the fatal shooting of two NYPD patrol cops in their parked vehicle in Brooklyn later that year and the wave of professional athletes that have turned Colin Kaepernick's taking-a-knee stand against police brutality into a national movement.

What's most notable, however, is the skill with which the writer-director shapes these real-life elements into a shattering ripple-effect narrative, somber and rigorously focused, that illustrates with quiet eloquence and moral complexity how the consequences touch all of us. The audacious three-act structure and the deeply felt performances of a cast of talented up-and-comers should leverage a theatrical life for this sobering drama, with its echoes in the recent news cycle inviting editorial coverage.

Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood has rarely looked more cinematic, with its rows of brownstones and clusters of housing project blocks, where a heavy police presence is part of the fabric of daily life. The catalyst for Green's story is the death of beloved local fixture Big D. (Samel Edwards), a gentle giant usually stationed outside a corner deli selling loose cigarettes. When he's fatally shot while resisting arrest, the incident is recorded by Manny (Anthony Ramos) on his cell phone video.

Manny and his wife Marisol, played by Ramos' fellow original Hamilton cast discovery Jasmine Cephas Jones, have a baby daughter and another on the way. He's just starting a new job working front-desk security at a Manhattan office building and she's finishing her degree, so even without the warning from cops not to cause trouble, Manny is torn about what to do when newspaper reports falsely claim that the unarmed victim was drawing a weapon at the time of his shooting. Manny's difficult decision to post the video online leads to his arrest soon after on flimsy charges.

It was a bold move by Green to encourage us to invest so thoroughly in the young father and his finely etched family bonds only then to have him remain unseen for the rest of the movie. It's the first of two handoffs that pass the narrative baton from one protagonist to the next, and while that structural device could easily have been schematic, there's an expert fluidity to the chain of events and their direct impact on three men of color just trying to live honest, productive lives.

The second of them is Dennis (John David Washington), a local cop whose uncomfortable awareness of racial profiling has earlier been conveyed in a sharp opening scene that has him pulled over for a license check while driving responsibly, happily singing along to Al Green. A family man like Manny, Dennis is in line for promotion after eight years of service, and although his wife Michelle (Nicole Beharie), a sleek professional type, had vowed never to get involved with a cop, she nonetheless is loving and supportive.

When Dennis studies Manny's face through a one-way interrogation-room window at the precinct, he seems convinced of the man's innocence. But his awareness of the mutually protective bubble of police life causes him to remain silent during an investigation into the history of excessive force used by the cop who shot Big D.

In one brief, loaded scene, Dennis gets into an argument over the killing with a guest during a relaxed dinner in his home, demonstrating the heated feelings among African-Americans at all levels of the social spectrum about the treatment of black citizens. Equally telling are Dennis' exchanges with his white female patrol partner, Stacey (Cara Buono), whose "it is what it is" stance seems to typify attitudes within the force that discourage any concerned officer from rocking the boat.

Chilling evidence of the imbalance is planted throughout the film, however, with tension steadily ratcheted as peaceful street protests intensify and an incident of rogue violence against two precinct cops turns up the temperature. The harsh reality of "stop and frisk" policies is hammered home in a chilling scene in which high school student Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) complies in stunned, terrified near-silence as two officers detain him on the sidewalk to be questioned and searched. The bitter irony of them then instructing him to "Get home safe" hangs in the air like poison.

A talented slugger on the radar of a handful of top professional baseball teams, Zyrick lives with his single father (Rob Morgan), whose pride in his son makes it seem he's already playing in the big leagues. But Zyrick's focus on his sports career gets compromised as he's politicized by his own experience and what he's witnessed in the neighborhood, causing him to reach out to local activist leader Zoe (Chante Adams) to get involved.

Green narrowly avoids the trap of making all the black characters saints (minor legal infringements are simply a given in the environment) and all the white authority figures abusers of power. But the systemic odds against people of color are communicated with a cogent point of view that's entirely persuasive.

The story builds to a powerfully muted climax that's open-ended and provocative rather than predictably tragic, molded every step of the way by the smooth cutting of editors Scott Cummings and Justin Chan, and measured use of a quiet, pensive score by Kris Bowers. The shooting style of cinematographer Pat Scola also works effectively, notably in tracking sequences that observe the characters from behind or from a sidelong distance, making the audience complicit in the way they are viewed by law enforcement.

Washington, the son of Denzel Washington, makes a particularly strong impression here as a good man in a position of conflict almost impossible to sustain. But Monsters and Men is a robust ensemble piece in which every performer finds subtle shadings in characters fully embedded in a realistic milieu. It's a smart, urgently relevant movie that marks an impressive upgrade from his acclaimed short films for writer-director Green.

 

Cast: Anthony Ramos, Kelvin Harris Jr., John David Washington, Chante Adams, Rob Morgan, Nicole Beharie, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Cara Buono
Production companies: Sight Unseen, The Department of Motion Pictures, in association with AGX, The Green Brothers
Director-screenwriter: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Producers: Josh Penn, Elizabeth Lodge Stepp, Eddie Vaisman, Julia Lebedev, Luca Borghese
Executive producer: Leonid Lebedev, Oren Moverman, Charles Miller, Chiara Bernasconi, Noah Stahl
Director of photography: Pat Scola
Production designer: Scott Dougan
Costume designer: Begona Berges
Music: Kris Bowers
Editors: Scott Cummings, Justin Chan
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Sales: Endeavor
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

98 minutes