“Monsters and Men” is a modest but engaging drama calmly examining its relevant social issues via three different viewpoints. Although it is not entirely successful due to its some weak spots, there are a number of powerful moments to remember in the film, and they may make you reflect more on numerous tragic real-life incidents not so different from the one at the center of the movie.
After the opening scene showing an African American man having a rather uncomfortable moment while driving his car, we are introduced to Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos), a Latino American lad who is about to have a job interview for getting hired as a security guard at some building located in Manhattan, New York City. Because he wants to be a responsible person to his girlfriend and their little daughter, he is ready to do his best, but we sense his nervousness when he fills out his application form, which contains a question on whether he has any criminal record.
Anyway, things look fine as Manny returns to his Brooklyn neighborhood, and we see him spending some good time with his mother, his girlfriend, and his dear daughter at their cozy apartment, but something terrible suddenly happens when he later hangs around with his friends near a local supermarket. A bunch of police officers arrive and then attempt to arrest an African American guy named Darius Larson (Samel Edwards) for his illegal commercial activity, and the situation quickly becomes quite tense when Larson resists the police officers. While Manny tries to shoot the whole situation with his smartphone, Larson is shot by one of the police officers, and Manny is devastated by Larson’s eventual death as one of Larson’s many acquaintances in the neighborhood.
After attending Larson’s following funeral, Manny is approached by two cops, who suggest to him that he should not disclose anything to cause more troubles. After silently conflicted over what he saw and shot during the incident, he comes to decide to upload his video clip on the Internet, and, not so surprisingly, he soon comes to face the inevitable consequence of his action. He is arrested and then held in custody by the police for something he committed some time ago, and there is nothing he can do about that except demanding a lawyer for him.
After that narrative point, the movie shifts its focus to Officer Dennis Williams (John David Washington), who is that African American guy shown during the opening scene. Watching Manny being unfairly treated by his system, Williams feels sorry for him, but he also sides with his fellow police officers, and he is even willing to justify their position as shown from one intense conversation scene. When he later meets a federal investigator, he adamantly maintains his detached appearance without saying anything substantial, and there is a brief but striking moment when he phlegmatically watches an African American boy being searched by two cops from the distance.
In the meantime, the movie lets us understand the constant risk and frustration Williams and other police officers face on streets. At one point, he and several other police officers play basketball with local boys, and they have a pretty good time together, but he later finds his patrol car soiled and damaged. When two fellow police officers of his precinct are killed, he is certainly devastated as much as others in the precinct, and he also finds himself conflicting with his wife Michelle (Nicole Beharie), who has understandably become more worried about his risky profession.
During its third act, the movie moves its focus to Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the aforementioned African American boy watched by Williams from the distance. Because he is about to get college scholarship as a promising baseball player, he must be more discreet in his behavior and appearance than before, but he comes to feel that he must do something after watching that video clip posted by Manny, so he approaches to a girl who has participated in the ongoing protest in their neighborhood, though he still does not know what he exactly should do even at that point.
The screenplay by director/writer Reinaldo Marcus Green stumbles a bit during this part as getting a little too preachy and heavy-handed, and the finale does not work that well in my trivial opinion, but there are still several good moments to be appreciated. While the crucial conversation scene between Zyrick and his concerned father Will (Rob Morgan) is shown with restraint and thoughtfulness, the following demonstration scene is presented with considerable realism and verisimilitude, and Green skillfully handles this key scene without sensationalizing it.
Green also draws solid performances from his main cast members. While John David Washington, who has been more notable since his leading performance in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” (2018), gives the most compelling performance in the film, Anthony Ramos and Kelvin Harrison Jr. are also effective as the other crucial parts of the story, and other performers including Rob Morgan and Nicole Beharie are appropriately cast in their respective supporting roles.
Although it is entirely without flaws, “Monsters and Men” is a commendable work on the whole thanks to Green’s competent direction as well as the good performances from his cast members. This is the first feature film from Green, and, considering his small but significant achievement here in this film, it will be interesting to see what will come next from him.