SXSW 2023: MONOLITH Revels in Isolation and Intrigue

An engrossing, single-location story, driven by a superb performance from Lily Sullivan

There’s always something alluring about “bottle films,” movies that center events around a single location, either through the creative use of small budgets, or taking on the logistical challenge, where one focal character serves as a conduit to an escalating situation in the outside world. Think Locke, Pontypool, 127 Hours, or most recently The Antares Paradox. Monolith, a sci-fi thriller from director Matt Vesely and writer Lucy Campbell, embraces the bottle genre with aplomb, thanks to a compelling mystery, and an enthralling performance by Lily Sullivan (the upcoming Evil Dead Rise).

We meet The Interviewer (Sullivan) in the midst of recording a public apology. It’s the aftermath of a retraction, after a story accusing someone of a crime had to be pulled due to her failure to properly vet a source. Her reputation tarnished, and her public information being doxxed, she has been forced to take refuge in her family’s isolated home on the Australian coast. Alone as her parents travel overseas, she decides to try her hand at rebuilding her reputation by starting an investigative journalism podcast called ‘Beyond Believable’. The Interviewer casts a wide net, looking for unusual events to dig into. She receives an anonymous tip via email that simply provides the words “Floramae King” and “brick”, along with a phone number. A phone call with Floramae (voiced by Ling Cooper Tang) leads to the panicked sharing of a story about an unusual black brick that mysteriously appeared and provoked strange feelings within her. It was a marker for a time of upheaval in the life of her family, as well as the family that she once worked for as a housekeeper. Taken from her, the brick was sold to a German art collector named Klaus (voiced by Terence Crawford), who shares that there is not just one brick, but a whole spate of these objects across the world. Many are in his possession, others with different owners, each having similar stories about the unusual arrival of the object, and an unsettling emotional response to them. Driven by public interest in the first few episodes of her podcast and sensing a shot at redemption, The Interviewer delves deeper. She uncovers a possible threat to mankind, and a secret in her own past revealing how she is part of the story she’s trying to tell.

The mystery in Monolith lies in these bricks. They’re haunting shapes, inky black in color, seemingly echoing feelings and fears, manifesting for some of their recipients haunting visions of the past. The rabbit hole The Interviewer goes down connects them to conspiracy theories, behavioural changes, government programs, and even a possible extraterrestrial origin. It’s a theory supported by volumetric scans of the brick interiors, showing them filled with unique symbols that may derive from an unknown language. The film (thankfully) doesn’t answer everything, but deftly sketches a longstanding mystery, an immediate threat, and paints an ominous portent for the future.

This sci-fi slant combines with the film’s real hook, the journey of The Interviewer. Sensing a story, grasping at an opportunity, it’s not long before we see she’s up to her old tricks, editing the order of words to fit the story she’s trying to tell–including coercing people into interviews and eventually bluntly threatening them. Even as interview subjects warn her to stop, she keeps plugging away. Part of the unease the film conveys is that sense our fate is in her hands, even as The Interviewer’s capabilities and judgment seem to become increasingly compromised as she plunges deeper into the conspiracy. Her acts, as well as the evidence she reveals, open up a broader reflection on journalistic integrity, information, disinformation, and a subtle but effective commentary on class and socioeconomic privilege. Lily Sullivan has nearly every frame of the film to herself. Our only other input, like hers, is via phone calls, home video, and audio recordings. Sullivan pours herself into this character, bringing conviction and unique physicality across an ever-intensifying gamut of emotions from downtrodden to determined towards the stark and surreal climax–a human element that is the crux of this tale.

Matt Vesely’s focused direction, the sharpness of Michael Tessari’s cinematography, Benjamin Speed’s ominous score, and an impeccably chosen location all align to channel Campbell’s writing into a genuinely engrossing mystery. A brooding tale of invasion and influence centered around Lily Sullivan, Monolith is a bottle film that revels in isolation and intrigue.

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