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Monuments 2020 Film Review Jack Newell

Monuments (2020), directed by Jack C. Newell / SHORT FILM REVIEW

At the worst points in our life, our emotions can drive us to do crazy things. Filmmaker Jack C. Newell’s Monuments (2020) explores said emotions – and one said crazy act – in an unconventional albeit not entirely unique way.

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The film explores the relationships between those who are left behind after a death in a family, the impact of such a loss, the varied ways in which some come to terms with it, and some others simply don’t.

Monuments 2020 Film Review

We all deal with loss in different ways

How, then, do we deal with loss? With grief? The emotions that follow from the worst parts of our lives?

Monuments (2020) tries to portray how not everyone does so in the same way. While not a unique premise, a whimsical approach to a depressing subject matter, (indeed not even unique to films about funerals), Monuments (2020) is at least memorable in its methods.

While a movie review may come across clinical regarding such an evidently emotion-driven work, films must nevertheless be analysed on their own two feet.

A rocky start, but one which you’ll soon get over

The film’s opening was a little jarring, as its sportive use of time creates unclear temporality. Beginning a film with flash-forwards and flashbacks, without a grounding of the ‘present’, was somewhat confusing – at least until the plot made itself known. This is further strained when such a playful use of time is directly contrasted with its subject matter. When I found myself imagining someone in the writing or direction department saying ‘It’ll all make sense later on’, it was not a promising start.

As the film went on this eased, however, largely as we got to know our main character, Ted Daniels (David Sullivan), and his frivolous nature. That nature which we also soon recognise is brought about by grief, caused by the demise of his wife, Laura Daniels (Marguerite Moreau). This is coupled with a personality incompatibility between himself and his wife’s family, which is made evident both through flashbacks and the first act’s development.

Gripes about temporality aside – such issues being hardly unique to Monuments (2020) – our lengthy introduction eventually concludes with Sullivan stealing (or perhaps kidnapping?) his wife’s ashes – just as her family is about to scatter them. Although on-the-nose (him being literally incapable of ‘letting her go’), the premise is entertaining. He proceeds to abscond with her ashes against her family’s wishes, travelling across the country to where he and his wife were ‘happiest’ – which is also left unexplained until later in the film, and that in turn was something which became a growing trend.

Pacing was difficult, but ironically fitting

Monuments (2020) does not harmonise well with the idea of a three act structure – the introduction is too long for an introduction, but too short to be the first act. However, this seems somewhat fitting with the subject matter of mourning itself. We linger in stages of grief; moving on is a struggle which many can surely relate to. We’re not sure when we move from one to the next; we simply recognise some time later that we have done so. While not a compliment to the film’s pacing, viewed thusly is, at least, assuaged somewhat.

While watching, I did not have the five stages of grief handy to keep track. However in retrospect Sullivan’s character – and thus the plot centred around him – does follow them to a fairly obvious degree, albeit not concretely enough to substitute the three-act structure effectively.

A small but well-chosen cast

Moreau’s family is small, but with a broad selection of characters. Their characterisation is brief albeit effective given their stereotypicality. They make recurring appearances, luckily remaining recognizable due to the film’s limited cast rather than their writing.

The only one we get to know in any detail is Moreau’s brother, Howl (Javier Muñoz), who takes off in pursuit of David Sullivan, leading to several fractious encounters between the two. Muñoz manages to intercede on several occasions, even recover her ashes, only to be thwarted each time. However, as our antagonist, his performance is excellent, presenting a thoroughly enjoyable presence in a film that could have gone either way. Muñoz shines despite portraying a limited character with equally limited screentime.

While a movie review may come across clinical regarding such an evidently emotion-driven work, films must nevertheless be analysed on their own two feet.

SPOILER ALERT What I anticipated was one man’s trip across America with a silent urn for company, perhaps with some soul-searching and reflective one-sided conversations. Much to my surprise, Moreau returned as a ghost (or perhaps a hallucination) to accompany her husband on their trip.

Again, the film’s whimsical nature could have rendered this to be in bad taste, but it oddly works. Indeed, it helps to keep the facade of whimsy alive even as the backdrop of grief is ever-present. She is a literal distraction from her own death, even as it is directly acknowledged. Together, the two travel to a destination which isn’t made clear until we’re nearly at their destination – a museum.

Monuments 2020 Movie Review

At 94 minutes, they could have afforded to cut some scenes

While overall a tightly knit piece, Monuments (2020) does suffer from some superfluous scenes, and indeed characters. As mentioned, the Daniels family feel somewhat underwritten, stereotypical, and have a very limited impact on the plot aside from Muñoz’ character. As such it was surprising to see them reappearing so often, usually alongside Muñoz, in scenes which are themselves very brief. This led to the natural question of why these scenes were included at all.

There is also a subplot where a potential love interest, Amber (Shunori Ramanathan), appears fairly early on along Sullivan’s travels. The obvious opportunity here is for him to ‘move on’ emotionally, yet this seems somewhat absurd in context. His wife has been dead for, at the most, a few weeks – indeed he is still quite literally holding her ashes.

If intentionally absurd it was unsuccessful, and simply felt entirely out of place. The subplot is very entertaining, Ramanathan emphasising the mental difficulties of her own grief and loss in a comic manner in keeping with the film’s tone, but its necessity is questionable given it has no impact on the plot.

Not long after this we encounter a shadow-puppetry scene where Anubis weighs the heart of his dead wife. In addition to being a fairly obscure and obtuse reference to Egyptian history, a historical reference which notably once again isn’t explained until the end of the film, it simply seems malapropos.

It turns a somewhat relaxed scene, a bonfire party, into a fairly surreal and almost frightening one was another jarring scene. It is obviously topically relevant, and even tonally makes sense – the reality of their situation hidden behind the mask of normalcy – but comes entirely out of nowhere and throws the film’s pacing for a loop.

Why am I thinking of Roman colloseums?

Something else somewhat distracting was the film’s soundtrack, which is reminiscent of a late 70’s historical epic like Ben Hur (1959) or Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Brass and orchestral strings abound in scenes where they feel very out of place.

This could be intentional, comically comparing Sullivan’s morbid road trip to those great cinematic voyages, but with so much else in the film already causing distraction it simply added to the issue rather than capitalising on the opportunity.

Further, there are lengthy stretches where there is not only no soundtrack, but seemingly no sound at all. Total silence which stretches uncomfortably long, only to be broken by that very same inappropriate music.

Overall, the soundtrack seemed ill-fitting. It was distracting to a degree worth mentioning, which in and of itself is a concern.

So why is it called ‘Monuments’ anyway?

The backdrop to Monuments (2020), of course, is its title. Throughout the film I kept it in mind, and was asking myself what the title meant in relationship to its message – aside from the very obvious. Sullivan is a history teacher after all, as we learn through flashbacks, and discusses the burial methods and monuments of the ancient Egyptians regularly.

He makes two rather poignant quotes throughout the film; “Nothing says ‘I WAS HERE’ like a monument”, in reference to the Pyramids of Giza. This, taken with a later quote that ‘The only afterlife is those of us left behind’, helps unlock the film’s message towards its end. Those ‘monuments’ mean little to the people left behind. His wife’s ashes are, in a sense, nothing more than a pyramid’s stones. The true ‘monument’ to her is the memories of their life together.

SPOILER It is only when they are at their journey’s end, in a museum surrounded by monuments, that Sullivan’s character comes to terms with his wife’s loss – whereupon he decides to travel all the way back to where he started to scatter her ashes and finally let go.

Final thoughts

Muñoz voices the same frustration towards the film’s end that I felt, ‘So it was all a waste of time?’ In a better film, you would say it was about the journey along the way, but I was banking on a fairly satisfying pay-off given the at times difficult watch Monuments (2020) turned out to be. I was disappointed, which is a phrase that could sum up this review.

Overall, a clunky if entertaining piece. The score, editing and writing could all have been improved, but the performances from the main cast were solid, in particular that of Moreau. Her character seemed underwritten and there were hints of a lack of direction, yet she portrayed a difficult character very well, shining through the film’s issues. Together with Sullivan and Muñoz’s performances, they may have salvaged an otherwise doomed film.

2.5 out of 5 stars