The triptych of stories that unspool in "Monsters and Men," a somber and strikingly assured debut feature written and directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, are set in motion by a distressingly topical premise: the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white cop.
The victim is Darius Larson, aka Big D (Samel Edwards), a resident of New York City's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, whose encounter with the police one evening swiftly escalates into an episode of pointless, nightmarish fatality. An eyewitness video of the shooting eventually surfaces online, but Green pointedly doesn't let us see it, as though reluctant to sensationalize his own narrative.
Instead he shows how his principal characters — three people whose paths almost but don't quite cross — react to the video, allowing us see the fear, indignation and heartache play out in their faces. He also acknowledges that his characters, by dint of their unique experience and perspective, will each see a different contour of the tragedy.
What those perspectives add up to is something both sobering and breathtaking. Unfolding in smoothly linear fashion, this is a pass-the-baton narrative, in which the dramatic focus shifts from one character to the next. The result, while fragmented by design, is a politically astute, emotionally layered examination of a violent death and its lingering psychic residue.
The power of the movie emerges less from its real-world parallels than from the rich dramatic life that spills into the frame around them. Green, a filmmaker of Puerto Rican and African-American descent, brings a distinct quality of observation to the narrative. And the photography, employing a handheld camera that sometimes trails the characters from behind and other times frames them from afar, always seems to be drawing them, with almost metaphysical force, toward moments of clarity and reckoning.
The early scenes introduce Manny (Anthony Ramos), a young Latino who witnesses Big D's confrontation with police. It is he who films the shooting on his phone, an incident that seems to play out with both ghastly suddenness and slow-motion inevitability. After a period of soul-searching in which he's unable to shake what he's seen, especially after two cops warned him not to get involved, Manny posts the video online.
Green whisks us away to another thread, this one following Dennis (John David Washington), a black cop who works in the same precinct. Working his way through the tricky middle ground where the quandaries of being a black man and being a police officer converge, Dennis emerges as the most compelling protagonist, partly on the strength of a silently seething performance from Washington, even better here than in his higher-profile turn as a conflicted cop in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman."
The third and youngest protagonist is a quiet, sensitive high school student, Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who's close to securing a college baseball scholarship but can't help but be distracted, first by the heightened police presence in his neighborhood and then by the emergence of the video of Big D's shooting.
There is something irreducibly powerful about the three men that Green puts before us and the quiet helplessness, verging on emotional and moral paralysis, that grips each of them in turn. But this isn't an overly dour or deterministic film. It fittingly ends with the camera still in motion, as though passing the baton to us.
Monsters and Men
★★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for shooting, shouting and systemic racism.
Theaters: Lagoon, Southdale.