This drama may start from a familiar premise, but it quickly evolves into a thought-provoking, suspenseful, and skillfully acted drama. By interlacing Steve's pre-prison life with the unfolding of his court case, Monster proposes meta-narratives about truth, perspective, storytelling, and memory.
Steve, a film student, begins narrating the movie as if reading from a script ("Interior. Holding room -- Day"). It's a clever concept and fortunately not overused. This is his story, but the fact that he's telling it -- as his film teacher notes in a discussion of Rashomon -- means we're only getting his perspective.
We know we should perhaps question his reliability as a narrator, but that's not easy considering what a sympathetic character he's made out to be. "He looks like your son," he assures us himself. When we hit a scene where even his loving father looks uncertain about Steve's innocence, it's jarring.
There's suspense in how 17-year-old Steve and his loving, comfortable, highly-educated family will hold up under the stress of the accusations and the terrifying conditions of life in prison. In a panic, Steve asks himself, "Who would you have to become to survive 25-to-life in here?"
There's suspense in trying to grasp how the facts of what happened on the night of the crime will unfold. And there's suspense, of course, in the trial, particularly considering Steve is a young Black man -- he "looks the part," as the prosecutor chillingly puts it.
The film has an obvious message about the presumed guilt and unfair prosecution of Black men, though it's careful not to generalize innocence either. In a movie about a wannabe movie-maker, symbolic choices of lighting and framing are also to be expected. Steve's life before prison is captured in warm autumnal tones, a contrast to the cold grey of the courtroom scenes, where White and Black characters are dressed in white and black.
There's no space for grey in the court of law, we're told, yet this film works precisely because it exploits the grey area between fact and fiction, memory and truth, guilt and innocence.
Read the full review at Common Sense Media.