There’s a good movie being made about the podcast delving into unsolved mysteries as the hosts sort the cliffs and that dramatic beat on the press. For half its running time, it looked like Australian thriller Monolith might be that movie. But the film, the debut from director Matt Vesely and screenwriter Lucy Campbell, lurks on the ambushes it intends to send: red herrings, a tone of suffocating melancholy and desperation to keep the audience at bay.
The only on-screen actor is Lily Sullivan, who plays an unnamed, voice-difficult interviewer who has recently fallen into disgrace due to a j’accuse error. (Her inbox is full of angry emails.) After moving out of her home, she sets up a recording studio in her parents’ modern mansion—the kind with creepy floor-to-ceiling windows and so much nothingness outside that it might be. They are hiding on Mars. Her folks are out, but her flock is online, if she can put on a hit show that will flood her back in the five-star ratings.
The puzzle you choose involves a maid named Floramae (voiced by Ling Cooper Tang) who claims to have once received and lost a strange black brick. She can’t explain how she got it and she can’t explain what he did. But the ban – or rather, the theft by her employers – turned her life upside down.
It doesn’t sound like a big story. However, Campbell’s screenplay was designed so that we and Sullivan’s character would deduce what he looked like together, one interview at a time. These early interrogation scenes have a clear purpose. Vesely zooms the camera into Sullivan’s pores for examination as she scrutinizes callers who claim to also own one of these luscious rocks. The dialogue is crisp and Sullivan’s face is so engaged that you can see the moment the conversation turns against her. It is clear that she does not believe them. Meanwhile, we realized that we shouldn’t believe her. “I don’t want others to twist your words,” Florama asserts, only to immediately break out of her editing software so she can twist them herself.
If the movie continued in this direction, it would have been a decent exercise in isolation. Shot in those cool gray tones that mean sophistication, the images inside the house suffocate us in a way that befits the story, even if we start to feel like a pet turtle seen imprisoned in a stinky tank. (The ka-bump, ka-bump of a muffled pulsation on the vocal mix is a nice touch, as is the tone of Benjamin Speed.) Sullivan is, for a while, so captivated by her microphone that I’ve begun to bet her whether she’ll stand up later, when she comes out To smoke, seeing pure oxygen – even on a screen – makes you want to breathe in to catch your breath.
In this airless, round-the-clock working life (which, after 2020, filmmakers are gambling with which audiences can relate), it seems inevitable that the interviewer will be prone to madness. But the way it works (and the ideas and images Vesely uses to get at it) is half-baked nonsense of someone who grabbed the mic for a toast and forgot what he meant to say. Interesting questions raised earlier evaporate. Their place reveals that stressful naivety and climax can be slapped on dozens of other clicks. When in doubt, bleating “class consciousness!” And I hope advocates get people to agree that this is important. “All you have to do is listen,” Sullivan said. Fair, but you have to say something worth listening to.
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