A podcaster interviews various subjects to uncover a mystery surrounding strange objects that may be of alien origin in Matt Vesely’s Monolith.
Single-location movies have become more commonplace over the last few years. A global pandemic likely has something to do with that but even before then plenty of examples could be found. Locke, Buried and Phone Booth are some examples. Setting a narrative almost entirely within a single location is undoubtedly a challenge for filmmakers as they only have one space to work with. Tom Hardy spent the entirety of Locke making phone calls from a car and Ryan Reynolds was making calls when stuck in a small box in Buried. The drama was in the conversations they were having and urgency was created by the helplessness of being confined.
Monolith has more space at its disposal with a sizeable modern house and its surroundings. The character known only as the Interviewer (Lily Sullivan) is the only on-screen character with the story being told through her conversations, emails that she reads and Occasionally talking to herself. The film efficiently conveys important information about the character very early on with mention of her being a journalist who was disgraced by leaping to conclusions on a sensitive story and getting it badly wrong. Her career is in tatters and she has retreated to her parents’ home to lick her wounds before figuring out her next move. This knowledge justifies the fact that the character is never named as it brings the viewer into the shame she deals with by being kept at arm’s length. Even though the story plays out from her perspective, there’s a distance created between her and the viewer that adds to the uncertainty and helps further the unsettling mood the film creates.
To rehabilitate her reputation, the interviewer starts a podcast named “Beyond Believable”; a series focused on exploring strange urban myths to find the truth behind them. She is anonymously sent a phone number and starts to investigate stories of mysterious bricks that come into people’s lives at moments of bad fortune. Questions are raised about their possible extraterrestrial origin and the accounts become more outlandish the deeper the Interviewer gets into her investigation. Her investigation contributes to her paranoia which is intensified by her isolation. It’s a story built around hearing stories and it consistently grabs attention by drip-feeding details that add depth to it. Each reveal acts like a piece of an expanding puzzle and grows the narrative far beyond the walls confining the Interviewer.
Monolith is all about mood and atmosphere. A sense of foreboding is created through absence. The Interviewer only interacts with people over the phone or through email so spends the entire film largely alone with her thoughts as she mulls over the mistake that destroyed her livelihood. Her surroundings begin to feel suffocating to her as there’s a sense that she can’t escape from what amounts to a self-imposed prison. The house is visually sterile so fails to be a homely or inviting environment. She is very much a guest in someone else’s space and can’t take comfort in familiar surroundings.
On a more personal level, it’s a film about punishment; whether that be the punishment that people inflict on themselves after making mistakes or the external punishment inflicted on someone who makes a mistake. In both cases, the Interviewer is being punished and isolating herself from the outside world leads to unhealthy coping mechanisms providing ample breeding ground for obsession, paranoia and a fractured view of her own self-worth. Whether she deserves to suffer consequences for past misdeeds is left to the viewer to decide but it’s clear that she is spiralling and the audience is invited to watch that unfold as they draw their own conclusions based on the available information. It makes the audience a participant in the judgement placed on her which contributes to the atmosphere being created.
Lily Sullivan is excellent. Subtle shifts in her vocal performance, body language and facial expressions convey the feelings of the Interviewer brilliantly and she commands the space expertly. She never fails to captivate the attention of the viewer and is never anything less than believable in the way she conducts herself when interviewing. The script conveys a character that could stray into being unlikeable but Lily Sullivan gives plenty of reasons to invest in the Interviewer and root for her success in reclaiming her reputation even though she makes the same mistakes that landed her in her current situation.
The film overcomes the inability to show the stories being told with some impressive visual flourishes. Close-ups on waveforms help enhance the emotion associated with a story being recounted and slow journeys down corridors support the danger associated with the mysterious bricks being discussed. A lot is left to the viewer’s imagination and the film does everything it can to supply the fodder for their imagination to run wild. Everything from the sincerity in the voices to the vivid descriptions of the events helps paint that picture and add to the unsettling mood.
Payoff is always an issue when setting anything up and Monolith doesn’t stick the landing. The ending seems designed to confuse and unnerve which it accomplishes but it concludes in a way not befitting of everything that came before. After such a slow and deliberate build-up, the ending is rushed by comparison and is very much the conclusion of a different film. It doesn’t detract from the overall experience as the execution of the mystery combined with the mood and atmosphere lingers once the credits roll. It’s truly a strong example of single-location filmmaking that never fails to engage the viewer.
A strong example of single-location filmmaking with an excellent leading performance, expertly crafted mood and atmosphere and a uniquely presented mystery that creatively builds over the running time.
- Lily Sullivan’s excellent performance
- expertly crafted mood and atmosphere
- strong use of space
- an engaging slow-burn mystery
- impressive visual flourished aiding the storytelling
- the payoff not befitting the build-up
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