SXSW 2023 Review: MONOLITH, Single Setting Sci-Fi Delivers Creeping Dread
A disgraced journalist tries to claw her way back into the game through a podcast on the metaphysical mysteries of the unexplained in first time feature director Matt Vesely’s Monolith. A single character, single location science fiction thriller, Monolith delivers in ways you won’t be expecting as a simple e-mail leads to a complex world of sinister phenomena.
The Interviewer (Lily Sullivan, Evil Dead Rise) is desperately trying to find a subject for her inaugural episode and just when it seems nothing is working out she receives an anonymous e-mail reading simply, “Floramae King + the brick” and ending with a phone number. With time running out to keep her new gig and nothing else lined up, she takes a flier and quickly finds herself neck deep in a global, possibly interstellar conspiracy that no one can fully explain.
Isolated at her parents’ country estate while they are away, The Interviewer gets in touch with Floramae, who describes a simple black brick that appears just before a traumatic event in her family’s life. While the brick seems to bring her calm and confidence, its sudden absence throws her nice, predictable life as a housekeeper into complete chaos. In following up on the story, The Interviewer not only finds the missing brick, but discovers that it’s not alone, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds around the world, each appearing out of nowhere and affecting their owners in different, but profound ways.
What started as a Hail Mary, turns into all out obsession after she posts her initial skeptical episode and receives dozens of responses from people with similar stories. Some stories reveal a sense of calm delivered by the brick’s presence, while other describe lives and people destroyed. Now determined to find the truth, she loses herself in the search, becoming convinced that this conspiracy goes back decades and that something very big and very bad is going on.
Sullivan is the only character on screen for the entirety of the film and she plays her journey from skeptic to true believer with dedicated zeal. It becomes clear fairly early on that she comes from wealth, her parents’ sprawling estate evokes the same kind of modernist extravagance as the house in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. At first it just seems like one way that our lead can afford to take what seems like months on her own without work is because of this safety net, but as the film reveals more of its secrets, it becomes clear that there’s something more behind this.
Credit is definitely due to Lucy Campbell’s intricately layered and carefully constructed script. With little more than a single on-screen lead and about a dozen voices over the phone, she’s able to create a full and compelling world. The Interviewer’s arc through Monolith is dramatic, for sure, but Campbell’s careful escalation of the story allows us to stay with her even when things get really crazy. Vesely’s direction as well Michael Tessari, precisely articulated cinematography and Benjamin Speed’s pitch perfect score all support Campbell’s writing in a way that is absolutely necessary for a film like this.
While watching Monolith I was reminded of Bruce McDonald’s brilliant one-hander Pontypool. Both films completely reliant on the performance of a single character as unexplained events begin to escalate around them and the only way to make it out alive – hopefully – is to talk them out. Though Pontypool is definitely a straight-ahead horror film, Monolith’s science fiction elements slowly morph their way into horror by the time the shocking conclusion snatches the audience’s breath from their lungs.
Yet another incredible debut feature for a director at this year’s SXSW after the big wins of Aberrance, It Lives Inside, and Molli and Max in the Future, Vesely isn’t the only one to watch after Monolith’s incredible success, Lucy Campbell’s writing is bound to get her noticed and I hope to see them both in action again very soon. Among the best of this year’s SXSW, Monolith is an intelligent, exquisitely mounted creeping nightmare of a film that I can’t wait to read more about once it reaches audiences.
- Matt Vesely
- Lucy Campbell
- Lily Sullivan
- Ling Cooper Tang
- Ansuya Nathan