“In a festival that rarely wants for political currency,” writes Justin Chang in a dispatch from Sundance to the Los Angeles Times, “it’s surely no coincidence that Blindspotting and Monsters and Men, the first two films to screen in this year’s American dramatic competition, are both predicated on the same attention-grabbing plot point: the killing of a black man by a white police officer. . . . Directed with impressive restraint and assurance by the first-time filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green, [Monsters] tells a triptych of stories unfolding in present-day Brooklyn . . . Green plays out each of these stories to slow, steadily absorbing effect, avoiding every impulse toward either phony contrivance or pat resolution. Patrick Scola’s cinematography is flowing, alert and remarkably expressive.”
“On a balmy summer night, a young Nuyorican man named Manny (Anthony Ramos) witnesses a policeman killing an unarmed man whose only crime was selling loose cigarettes on a street corner,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. Green “first follows Manny, who recorded the incident on his phone, as he weighs whether or not to post the video online. . . . The film’s second part switches perspectives and zeroes in on a black patrol officer, Dennis (John David Washington), whose principled loyalty to police work conflicts with his lived experience. . . . The film’s final third is a poignant portrait of a teenage baseball star, Zee (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), at the dawning of his social and political consciousness. One could see this segment as a gently rousing call to action, and it is, in a way. But the film is careful to frame Zee’s awakening as its own kind of tragedy.”
“Green seems to know that Zee’s story holds the most weight,” suggests IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “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.”
“What's most notable” for David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter “is the skill with which the writer-director shapes these real-life elements into a shattering ripple-effect narrative, somber and rigorously focused, that illustrates with quiet eloquence and moral complexity how the consequences touch all of us. . . . The story builds to a powerfully muted climax that's open-ended and provocative rather than predictably tragic, molded every step of the way by the smooth cutting of editors Scott Cummings and Justin Chan, and measured use of a quiet, pensive score by Kris Bowers.”
“If Monsters and Men seems to raise more questions than it answers, that’s true,” argues Variety’s Peter Debruge, “although too many involve an overall lack of clarity. Mixing ‘gritty’ handheld camerawork with an almost zen-like kind of restraint, Green’s approach is frustratingly thin on the kind of specifics that make for rich drama, leaving audiences to fill in the gaps.”
“We never get any resolution,” confirms Mike Ryan at Uproxx, but for him, that’s an asset: “This is a huge risk for a first-time filmmaker, and he nails it beautifully.”
There’s no byline on Screen’s review of “this surprisingly fresh and deft debut feature,” but there is this observation: “If Spike Lee’s Bed-Stuy was a brightly-colored, comic-book hip-hop vision, Green’s is an authentic and genuine space, of communal street corners and close-knit families, where the residents, after all these years, are still trying to do the right thing—even if the society doesn’t.”
“My endurance was certainly tested—it felt more like training for the Olympics than a yearly championship,” Green tells Filmmaker. “From script to screen has taken about two and half years, which in movie time, is actually pretty fast. But that’s still two and half years of grinding every day, full throttle, and with an incredible amount of support.”
Updates, 1/22: “Every scene has only text, no subtext,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov, “each line of dialogue and character introduced solely for the purpose of being called back as soon as possible. The deck is generally stacked . . . But this movie isn’t made for me, is it? Monsters and Men provides mimetic affirmation that these are dark times, and you’re not alone in constantly clocking them. That 38% of America that remains basically, inflexibly in support of Our New President will never be moved; those in the ambivalent middle might yet have a shot at changing themselves. Actually, I doubt this movie will do anything to shape hearts and minds, but if there’s a chance then why not?”
“There will always be things I admire and draw from,” cinematographer Patrick Scola tells Filmmaker. “In this case I had built a pretty hefty look book of documentary and street photography. The work of Peter Marlow occupies a bit of that book. I would say that Soy Cuba (1964) was inspiring in the way the camera felt feather light. We tried to move the camera in handheld ways that felt unencumbered; that film was a great piece to reference for that.”
Updates, 1/23: Neon has picked up domestic rights, reports Deadline’s Patrick Hipes.
“What’s possibly even more impressive than the assured technique deployed by Green and his crew, and the across-the-board stellar performances from the primary cast and smaller roles, is how skillfully Monsters and Men shows how a single act of violence creates a dark ripple that touches people twice, thrice, ten times removed,” writes Bryan Adams at the Credits. “This is powerhouse filmmaking.”
For the Los Angeles Times, Tre’vell Anderson profiles Kelvin Harrison Jr., “a standout at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival with no less than three films premiering. In one of those—Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation in the midnight section—he has a supporting role. But the other two—powerful leading turns in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Monsters and Men, which premiered Friday, and Anthony Mandler’s Monster, which premieres Monday, both in dramatic competition—already have festival audiences buzzing.”
Update, 1/27: “It’s best when relying on its performers, as these men provide the type of inner debate that Monsters and Men too easily simplifies with its script,” writes Nick Allen at RogerEbert.com.