Reel Reviews | Monsters and Men (Sundance ’18)

by Tim Gordon

Three lives intersect and are profoundly changed when a popular local neighbor figure is killed in director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s  drama, Monsters and Men.

The story opens as we focus on a very excited Manny (Anthony Ramos) who is on his way back to Bed-Stuy after a successful job interview in Manhattan. Eager to provide for his girlfriend, Marisol (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and child, he stops to chat it up with his friend and resident sage, Darius (Christopher Jordan Wallace), aka “Big D.” Reminding Manny that he has a “good woman” and that family is most important, D reminds him to stay on his grind and make sure he lets Manny’s family know that they are on his mind.

Later that night, Manny and friends are shooting craps outside of the store when several police cars show up and they begin to question Big D. Sensing something is amiss, Manny records the encounter on his cellphone and after a heated back-and-forth, a shot rings out and Big D is shot. While the incident is not shown, the horror and outrage are all over the face of the distraught Manny, who stumbles home in a daze after witnessing the death of his friend.

Soon detectives show up with veiled threats to Manny to keep quiet and forget what he saw, which leads him to upload the incriminating video on social media. Now officially a target, Many is soon picked up by the same detectives and charged with a crime that he didn’t commit. His bail is set ridiculously high with hopes of silencing him and protecting the crooked cop, Officer Suarez (J.W. Cortes) that put him there in the first place. Unfortunately, the video galvanizing community action and Suarez is placed on administrative sparking outrage that finds two police officers ambushed and killed.

In another part of the community, we meet another officer in the 74th, Dennis (John David Washington) who intimately understands that race makes him a target. Pulled over multiple times and profiled by fellow officers, he takes an interest in the neighborhood shooting feeling that something isn’t right but not eager to break the “blue wall.” His ambivalence troubles his wife, Michelle (Nicole Beharie) who worries that soon she could be widowed and forced to raise their son alone. The heat of the revelations brings Internal Affairs calling and suddenly, Dennis is pressured on both ends, from his shady colleagues as well as a concerned family friend (Cassandra Freeman) who is puzzled by his perceived inactivity and accountability to call out his crooked colleagues.

In the third section, a local high-school student, Zee (festival breakout star Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) with the talent and aspirations to be a professional baseball player, must also make a crucial decision; to stay focused on his sports dream or participate in the growing protest movement around the killing and make a change in his community. While his stern, yet supportive father, Will (Rob Morgan) tells his son that his athletic ability is “his ticket” out of the neighborhood. Complacency or political action? Such is the schematic choice offered to the film’s three protagonists. But by film’s end, Green allows for a more nuanced answer to his double bind.

As all three characters grapple with their responses to the tragedy, Green’s nuanced story leaves their fates open-ended, which may leave some dissatisfied, but feels like his effort mirrors reality since life’s solutions aren’t as easily resolved. When all is said and done, Monsters and Men is an intimate, inside peek of the emotional trauma far too many people experience when their lives have been turned upside down by senseless tragedy. Their lives will never be the same and Green’s film will have a similar effect on audiences fortunate enough to take this journey!

Grade: B-