Reappearing on DVD next month, October's The Hate U Give was the surprisingly powerful major-studio response to the recent spate of police killings in the US. This week's Monsters and Men is the indie variant: more specifically urban (unfolding around a recognisable, street-level Brooklyn, where its predecessor played out in a nameless, universal inner city), kaleidoscopic rather than straightforwardly linear, and working ultimately towards an overview of the causes-and-effects and consequences of tragedies such as these. There have been creative losses in the process. Writer-director Reinaldo Marcus Green forsakes the earlier film's urgency and emotional directness for an altogether more considered approach that juggles multiple perspectives. We start with Manny (Anthony Ramos), a young Latino who witnesses a police shooting outside a bodega and becomes a target for police aggression after uploading footage of the incident to the Internet; once he's arrested, the baton is passed to Dennis (BlacKkKlansman's John David Washington), the patrol cop who realises the kid's being set up for a fall, and has to square that fact with his own position as a person of colour who's made a comfortable life for himself pulling on the old NYPD blues.
This narrative relay race - hijacking the established MO of TV's Law & Order - ensures that Monsters and Men at every point feels like a thought-through plot, rather than a tract ripped opportunistically from the headlines, and Green digs some way into it, determining to do his hot-button topic justice. His script has a promising eye for the details and ambiguities of these cases. When the (black) Internal Affairs agent Dennis has just spent several minutes stonewalling congratulates him on eight years' service, it's with a compliment that has the ring of a slap to the face: "You must really know how to keep to yourself." And it says a lot for the cop's character that he should trouble to exit his patrol car to pick up the lunch baggie he'd unsuccessfully pitched towards a trashcan. The whole movie is bound up in knotty issues of personal responsibility - to a fault, in places. Despite the frequent shifts of tack, it's a slightly sluggish-seeming 95 minutes, caught overthinking its responses, where The Hate U Give could banish any undue handwringing with each cut to Amandla Stenberg's anguished or fearful face. Green is prone to setting up an interesting dilemma, then leaving it hanging; he's so keen to take the heat out of this broiling moment - to pause, analyse, reframe - that he risks leaving the audience cold. Washington has emerged as such a charismatic, anchoring screen presence that we miss him when the movie shifts into the segment that most explicitly echoes THUG (via Colin Kaepernick), tracking a young baseball star (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) whose conscience is awakened by the shooting.
We're always aware we're watching Monsters and Men at some remove, that the picture it's presenting us with will (necessarily?) be incomplete. It's at the very least a debatable choice not to show us either the initial shooting or the incendiary cam footage of same, as now everybody within the film has access to information we don't possess and can't pick over. Green might just be leaving that down to audience experience. There will be those onlookers who'll be fairly certain what the recording shows, not least because they'll have seen enough footage like it in recent years; there will be others who'd insist they need to review this case, as they would any others, with their own eyes. That's a provocative stance for a debutant director to take - but I could also see how it might seem evasive, and arguably even more divisive. (My argument would be that it's the latter camp who most need to see such things for themselves, over and over again if needs be.) The movies are, to their credit, still trying to work through what now appears a weekly American trauma, and this is bound to be a haphazard process. Green's film has some of the right ideas and long-term survival instincts - not least an inclination to step away at the first sign of conflict - but it sacrifices a measure of feeling to get to them. You couldn't for an instant accuse Monsters and Men of being reactionary or exploitative - it's the model of a thoughtful, quietly ambitious indie, concerned to give everybody their moment and hear everyone out - but it often strikes the eye like a flow chart compiled by a bright social-studies student, where The Hate U Give came at us like a punch to the gut.
Monsters and Men opens in selected cinemas from Friday.