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Monolith

Lily Sullivan, who broke through with an impressively physical performance in last year’s “Evil Dead Rise,” gives a remarkable one-woman show in Matt Vesely’s effective “Monolith,” a sci-fi thriller that somehow finds a way to make podcasting cinematic (mostly). It does so by mining what feels like that current of rising anxiety in the international consciousness for an old-fashioned slow burn of a sci-fi thriller. You know what I mean. It’s in the TikToks you stumble upon that are about purported glitches in the matrix or The Mandela Effect — a sense that something is wrong. Of course, anxiety isn’t new, but technology like podcasts seems to have amplified the conspiracy and anxiety receptors in the human brain. Or united people in a common understanding that everything is not what it seems. It depends on how you look at it.

Sullivan plays an unnamed journalist who has fallen from a lofty perch in her industry after a scandal that remains tantalizingly unclear. There are references to her not verifying something and glimpses of an email inbox with a lot of hateful subject lines. She made a mistake, and that sets her up in a vulnerable position, someone who not only wants to believe but wants to get the story to bring her back into the spotlight. Even with that set-up, she’s not exactly thrilled about joining the over-crowded and journalistically questionable world of podcasting, leading a new project called “Beyond Believable,” one of those podcasts that tells seemingly impossible stories.

Her life changes when she receives an anonymous email with a name, the words “the brick,” and a phone number. When she calls it, she starts a journey down a phenomenally conceived rabbit hole that sounds exactly like something one would stumble onto online in the middle of the night. The brief version is that some people out there have “received” — how they came into possession of them remains disturbingly vague, adding to the mystery — black bricks that seem to have some sort of supernatural power. They’re usually preceded by a terrifying vision — one man sees his brother who died years earlier while another speaks to the child who never knew him — and they’re usually followed by what could be called an overwhelming sense of dread.

Our protagonist is hesitant at first, but she starts to suspect there’s something to this brick story as her podcast numbers continue to rise. Writer Lucy Campbell is cleverly playing with a lot of ideas here, including what could be called audible virality, the sense that a story takes on more truth as it’s repeated. It's fascinating that the film is still called "Monolith" instead of, well, "Brick," as it allows interpretations of the monoliths of journalism, podcasting, and viral culture. 

Without spoiling, Campbell and Vesely are also playing with privilege when it comes to some late twists involving why this story is being told. Some of this is a little underdeveloped, but I don’t mind Campbell’s approach, which is to embed some of the morally thorny questions about podcasting and journalism in a sci-fi creeper. And Vesely uses his limited space very well, employing close-ups to enhance tension while also employing production design and a blue color palette that gives the whole thing a cold, foreboding energy.

And “Monolith” does get legitimately creepy. Some of our heroine’s choices as the film raises the stakes feel a bit unbelievable, but that can be forgiven given the single-setting, single-performer restrictions of the piece. In the end, the goal was clearly to trap us in the increasingly fractured mind of a single person who increasingly believes what is beyond believable. Mission accomplished.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Monolith movie poster

Monolith (2024)

94 minutes

Cast

Lily Sullivan as The Interviewer

Ling Cooper Tang as Floramae (voice)

Ansuya Nathan as Paula (voice)

Erik Thomson as Dad (voice)

Terence Crawford as Klaus (voice)

Matt Crook as Scott (voice)

Kate Box as Laura (voice)

Rashidi Edward as John (voice)

Brigid Zengeni as Shiloh (voice)

Damon Herriman as Jarad (voice)

Director

Writer

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