Monolith had its international première at SXSW 2023
The Interviewer (Lily Sullivan) has undermined herself. Unnamed but ever-present in Matt Vesely’s feature debut Monolith, she is a journalist whose latest exposé has put her under a cloud, and led to her losing her job with the Evening Journal. Maybe her subject David Langley was guilty of the criminal offences she claimed in her article, and maybe he was not – but the truth is she failed to corroborate her evidence or to check her sources’ background, leading to the discrediting of her whole story. She was, not for the first time, her own worst enemy.
Stories are at the centre of Monolith (written by Lucy Campbell). “I want to tell you a story,” are the words that open the film, spoken by an unseen Jarad Symes (voiced by Damon Herriman) who then launches into a paranoid yarn full of improbable events and wild interpretative leaps, all centred upon family – and his introductory words will recur, spoken by the Interviewer herself at the beginning of a public apology video that she records near the start of the film, and spoken by her again at the film’s end. Indeed the Interviewer collects other people’s stories and edits them together for Beyond Believable, the “clickbait podcast made for bored lonely ball bags with IQ levels below a lobotomised monkey” on which she has now been reduced to working since her departure from the more prestigious Evening Journal.
The Interviewer has fled both her apartment and the scrum of media and protesters which has beleaguered her in the aftermath of her disgraced article, and is now holed up in the opulently modernist country house of her parents while they are off holidaying in Europe. The house is located in remote Australian bushland, and she never leaves its confines, getting food home-delivered and venturing outside to the porch only for the occasional smoke – and so Monolith, perhaps reflecting the circumstances in which it was made, evokes the social distancing that we all recently experienced during the Coronavirus lockdown.
In this domestic space, we see the Interviewer all the time, going about her interviewing and editing work on the podcast, occasionally feeding – or trying to feed – her parents’ pet turtle Ian in his fishbowl terrarium (an environment not unlike her own), and gradually deteriorating in her isolation. What we do not see is any of her interviewees, although we hear them, first in their phone conversations with the Interviewer, and then being cut up for the show – often creatively, by this journalist who is still committed more to the allure of a sensationalist story than to the truth. Indeed these invisible interlocutors – the housekeeper Floramae King (Ling Cooper Tang) and her daughter Paula (Ansuya Nathan), the German art dealer Klaus Lang (Terence Crawford), the Ohio financial consultant Laura (Kate Box), admonitory family man John (Rashidi Edward), British journalist Shiloh (Brigid Zengeni) – are all reduced to their voices and their stories, with the Interviewer making the imaginative connections between their words and a grander narrative arc of conspiracy theory, mass psychogenic fugue or even hostile alien takeover.
What unites these stories are the mysterious black ‘bricks’ which the narrators claim to have received under equally mysterious circumstances, and which bring with them strange visions (hard to distinguish from reality), reminders of past guilt and forebodings of doom. They are like the black boxes in aircraft which impassively document everything, or like the obsidian monoliths from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) which signal crises in human evolution – or maybe they are just blank slates onto which any narrative can be projected. Yet in the face of repeated warnings that both the bricks – and stories about them – are dangerous, and that the Interviewer’s ever more popular podcast may, in shades of Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool (2008), be spreading “a viral disease that travels through sound”, the Interviewer gathers, shapes and broadcasts evidence that keeps getting closer to home. For this is her story now.
Buried in all these constructed confabulations are certain truths. For example, Monolith is upfront about the bourgeois safety net that allows the Interviewer to pursue her investigations at her own pace and to land on her feet with a new gig when, as Jarrad points out, she “should be workin’ in a fuckin’ donut shop, not making the news”. The Interviewer’s class privilege, at first drawn lightly, becomes ever more prominent as the film goes on, and her own exploitative part in the life stories of other, less advantaged people comes to the fore.
The Interviewer’s investigations begin when she receives an email with the heading: ‘the truth will out’, and with the message ‘Floramae King + brick’ and Floramae’s phone number. Later she will receive a package delivered to the door with video content relating intimately to her own childhood. The source of these messages is not revealed, and their very anonymity (and intimacy) conjures the similar deliveries in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Michael Haneke’s Hidden (2005). For like those films, Monolith too is ultimately a tale of troubled conscience and conflicted self, where everything ultimately comes from within. The Interviewer may go down a conspiratorial rabbit hole with implications of a global invasion or paranormal pandemic, but everything here, as in Jacob Gentry’s Broadcast Signal Intrusion (2021), leads back to the protagonist herself, and her own alienated identity. For the house’s interiors to which the film is almost entirely restricted are also the locus of the Interviewer’s own fragmenting interiority, as she must either face – or efface – certain home truths for which only she has the black box.
Telling a story that confounds what is real with what is mere delusion, and what is external with what is internal, Monolith wraps its coded message in an obscuring coat of irrationality, and despite several wild twists, never quite resolves its own enigmas and ambiguities, ensuring that the viewer will have plenty to unpack after the closing credits. Eventually, perhaps, the truth will out, but who knows if it will come straight from the mouth of this self-deceiving, self-sabotaging protagonist who chooses, perhaps to and beyond the end, to keep her true story and identity as submerged as her duplicity.
strap: In Matt Vesely’s locked-down mystery, an isolated podcaster investigates a conspiracy theory ever more uncomfortably close to home.
© Anton Bitel