MONSTERS AND MEN movie poster | ©2018 NEON/MoviePass

MONSTERS AND MEN movie poster | ©2018 NEON/MoviePass Films

Rating: R
Stars: Anthony Ramos, John David Washington, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Nicole Beharie, Cara Buono, Ron Morgan, Samel Edwards
Writer: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green
Distributor: Neon/MoviePass Films
Release Date: September 28, 2018

MONSTERS AND MEN tackles the serious subject of police shootings of unarmed people of color. Director/writer Reinaldo Marcus Green approaches his first full-length feature with great respect for his material, but less ability to make it dynamic.

In MONSTERS AND MEN, the narrative moves through three New Yorkers, all affected in different ways by the death of beloved neighborhood figure Darius Larson (Samel Edwards). It’s unclear exactly what happens when six officers surround Darius, but a shot is fired and he is killed. Manny (Anthony Ramos), a young man with a girlfriend, a daughter and another baby on the way, takes video of the incident on his phone.

Officer Dennis Williams (John David Washington) is also a family man – and a police officer who keeps getting pulled over for Driving While Black about once a month when he’s off-duty. He’s torn between what he knows about the killing, especially the officer who pulled the trigger, and his experiences as a beat cop, when small decisions can be the difference between life and death.

Finally, there’s teen Zyric (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who may have a brilliant future in baseball ahead of him. Zyric loves the game, but simultaneously feels the pull of community activism.

Green goes for atmosphere, and has stunning location shots. He captures the terror of physical confrontations that escalate. There are scenes of engaging life on the street, like a basketball game between cops and locals that shows everyone’s efforts at détente.

But Green also spends a lot of time having his main characters engage in solo, silent contemplation. We don’t doubt that all of them have a lot on their minds, but we don’t know any more at the ends of these scenes than we do at the start. We never get a good look at the shooting ourselves. This of course puts us with the characters, allowing our beliefs to color what we think happened, but the ambiguity doesn’t seem so much realistic as baffling. Nothing either bad (mistaken blame) or good (outright justice) comes from this lack of clarity. The distance of the protagonists from the central crisis expands rather than contracts as the film proceeds.

MONSTERS AND MEN is well-cast, with Ramos convincingly portraying deep fear and loving fatherhood. Harrison is an appealing young man. Washington makes the most of his character’s divided loyalties between his calling and his community. He’s also very charming in scenes with his wife (an excellent Nicole Beharie).

In the end, MONSTERS AND MEN almost feels more like a tone poem than a narrative. It’s sincere and feels lived in, but it seems a bit too ephemeral in its treatment of the matters that it wants us to consider to have much impact.

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