Reinaldo Marcus Green’s drama “Monsters and Men” rips from the headlines while going beyond them, following the aftermath of police shooting an unarmed black man from several different perspectives. Green, who makes his directorial debut with this feature after a substantial filmography of shorts, has essentially applied that same skill here. Though at times its message-oriented plot veers toward the obvious, Green’s measured screenplay manages to ask big questions without overstating them. The triptych of stories don’t overlap in obvious ways, and so Green’s quietly effective drama functions less as a linear narrative than a three-point meditation on African American identity at a moment of profound confusion.
It starts, as these stories so often do, with a viral video: Young family man Manny (Anthony Ramos) is hanging out with his peers on a Brooklyn corner when he spots the cops going after a neighborhood street hustler. Phone in hand, Manny captures the video of police shooting the man without cause, then finds himself in a sudden dilemma — publish the video, potentially complicating his stable work-life balance, or keep his head down? Once he goes with the former option, the corrupt machine does its thing, leaving Manny to ponder the nature of his priorities.
In a less ambitious movie, that conundrum might play out across the entire running time; Green, however, uses it as a mere starting point for showing the way such personal actions can resonate across multiple layers of a system at war with its values. The incident leaves police officer Dennis (John David Washington, son of Denzel) in a deeply conflicted state. In an early prologue, he’s seen off-duty pulled over by a white police officer without cause; later, we learn that it’s the sixth such incident of the year. He’s frustrated by the institutional racism around him, but nevertheless maintains deep convictions about the job. When Manny’s video yields an internal investigation, Richard must confront a moral quandary of his own.
In the midst of that mess, he passes by a young man being searched by officers without cause. That’s Zee (Kelvin Harrison Jr., the breakout star of “It Comes at Night”), a high school baseball player who stands a good chance at cracking the major leagues if he can stay out of trouble. The third and final protagonist of the movie’s fluid, chapter-based structure, Zee’s dilemma holds the most power, in large part because it goes in more unexpected directions. Even as his coach and father encourage him to keep his eye on the prize, he’s motivated by the dual impact of his own encounters with the police and Manny’s video to take a stab at neighborhood activism. While the challenges faced by the movie’s older men have a tendency to meander, Zee faces a subtler challenge that crystallizes the movie’s intent, and Harrison plays the character with a grave uncertainty even as he lacks the words to express it.
Green unearths fascinating parallels with his three leads, particularly in the way that each of them struggles to answer friends and relatives who encourage them to stay silent (and therefore complicit) in the injustices around them. Green doesn’t always find the most satisfying transitions between the stories, although in a post-“Crash” era it’s satisfying to see a movie unwilling to make this school of consequential ensemble storytelling into a laundry list of themes. The filmmaker’s naturalistic style — minimal use of music, roving camerawork — echoes the Dardenne brothers, and “Monsters and Men” could easily fit into their filmography of socially-conscious dramas. As with the Dardennes, the thematic trajectory often threatens to overwhelm a clear mastery of form, but when the form wins out it’s a worthy experience.
Green’s patient storytelling approach doesn’t always yield the strongest payoff, but he often lands on extraordinary compositions. One standout moment finds the officer looking directly across one-way glass at an incarcerated man, and when a few seconds lead to several more, it’s almost as if the window has become a mirror. At his best, Green enacts a similar effect with his audience, engaging in a personal dialogue about the contradictory impulses of modern black identity without outright stating it.
Needless to say, the filmmaker is better at observing in characters in moments of solemn contemplation than in conversation. His screenplay struggles through the occasional blunt dialogue. “This job is not a choice,” Dennis tells his concerned wife, who answers, “We always have choices.” And the choice to spend time listening to these characters talk through their problems often distracts from the sheer intensity of watching them think.
Green seems to know that Zee’s story holds the most weight. “Monsters and Men” kicks into high gear with the young man’s decision to take a stand even as his career gains momentum, and a protest rally that veers from poetically inspired to terrifying is the most cinematic paean to the fervor of Black Lives Matter since the movement was born. “Monsters and Men” ends on a rousing note, and after wandering through a series of murky challenges, finds a touch of catharsis in the prospects of acting out. The movie not only illustrates the power of modern activism; in its final moments, it becomes such an act itself.
“Monsters and Men” premiered in the U.S. Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.