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‘Monkey Man’: A thrilling start to Dev Patel’s directorial career

Editor-at-Large Devin Ankeney is a big fan of Dev Patel’s directorial debut film “Monkey Man.”
Editor-at-Large Devin Ankeney is a big fan of Dev Patel’s directorial debut film “Monkey Man.”

When I first heard about “Monkey Man,” Dev Patel’s directorial debut, I nearly lost my mind. 

I hadn’t honestly seen much of Patel’s work. The biggest thing I had known Patel from was, I swear, Aaron Sorkin’s canceled HBO show “The Newsroom.” Patel is arguably the best part of the otherwise lackluster three-season show. 

Two months before getting a release date, my friends and I put it on our calendars and made sure we blocked off the whole evening. 

I saw the film opening day and was promptly blown to smithereens in sheer excitement. “Monkey Man” explores political repression and religious persecution, all while finding a way to be one of the most violent movies I’ve ever seen. 

Kid (Dev Patel) is a poor man with a vengeance. As a child, he witnessed the death of his mother at the hands of Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher), the police chief. “Monkey Man” follows Kid (often referred to as Bobby — an alias) as he seeks revenge against the police chief and Baba Shakti (Makrand Deshpande), a spiritual, religious-leader-turned-political-heavyweight in India.

The film primarily puts the viewer in the shoes of Kid. In the beginning, his mother, Neela (Adithi Kalkunte), tells him the story of Hanuman, a Hindu deity who flew too close to the sun. “Monkey Man” derives its title from Kid’s embodiment of the deity by making himself an analogy to the story, and also by wearing a monkey mask at various points in the film.

Some supporting characters are thus not as fleshed out as they could have been, because we see them through Kid’s eyes. We’re made to feel what he feels with close-up shots, sometimes-shaky camera work and flashbacks that found a way to boil my blood and made me care deeply about Kid’s story.

On the press tour, we learned about many of the setbacks “Monkey Man” saw in development. Hatched in 2018, the film began as a Netflix exclusive, before finding a keen eye in Jordan Peele, who was able to convince Universal to buy the rights. Netflix, eager to rid themselves of a political message anything more than non-existent, let it go.

The crew dealt with broken cameras, shooting on GoPros and smartphones, and personal credit card usage among location losses to get this film done. There are a few moments that these elements are clear in the film, but in almost all cases it adds to the intimate feel.

While trying to seek vengeance against the ultra-nationalist Indian elite, Kid struggles with confidence and planning. We follow his journey through near-death experiences and, in one of the least-expected turns, a temple for Hijra people, the third gender in India.

The members of the temple come to the aid of Kid in his journey — in more ways than one — and culminate in a confidence-boosting arc and training montage. It had been clear since the beginning of the press tour that this film would act as a voice for the repressed, but it became clearer after seeing the film twice on opening weekend, that there’s a reason Netflix couldn’t fit this into its catalog of weak, soulless garbage.

“For me, this is an anthem for the underdogs, the voiceless and the marginalized,” Patel said in an interview with Variety. “Together they wage this war for the good.”

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“Monkey Man” is incredibly personal. Most scenes are shot closer than some might be comfortable with. At times, this bolsters the ability to make the viewer feel what Kid feels as he experiences his redemption story. At other times, it works against that and feels like we’re missing something in the background.

The film seeks to go against the grain of common redemption and revenge stories. There are wildly gorey moments, where we see, up close, the deaths of those standing in Kid’s way. Violence in this film is used to progress Kid’s narrative arc and his character. He fights in an underground fighting arena, “Tiger’s Temple,” for money, and this is used alongside the Hijra temple scenes to take Kid’s combat skills from meager to masterful.

Sound and music is used both here and throughout the film to match the emotions within Kid’s mind. What’s striking is the film’s use of quiet or less-overpowering music to get its point across. Fight scenes here aren’t bound to having loud music in the background. When the music gets turned up, so do the stakes and the extent to which I was pulled into the moment.

In the fighting arena, there’s a moment when the head of the arena, Tiger (Sharlto Copley), pulls the microphone away from his face mid-sentence, and the sound mixing is spectacular. In one fight scene, Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” has the perfect needle drop without taking over the scene.

Sound, in all cases here, stays in the backseat and knows exactly when to come out. Though, there are some contemporary American music choices that feel out of place when coupled with a film that is virtually devoid of American cultural aspects. Sometimes the song makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t, but in all cases it works to continue the emotional connection the viewer has to the film.

Kid experiences grief and anxiety. He feels anger toward the elite who have recklessly and carelessly slaughtered people to make their own ends meet. In this story about avenging the powerless in India, we see a striking film filled with representation for religious minorities and transgender people.

It certainly feels like a directorial debut. The closely-framed shots can be off-putting for some. The first half has choppy moments that did not get better on the rewatch, and there are a few moments in the Hijra temple that I couldn’t shake noticing its Netflix-exclusive roots.

But “Monkey Man” proves Patel’s ability. There is much, much more that works in this film than doesn’t, and Patel’s usage of emotion and intimate narrative framing made me excited to see what he does next.

In today’s landscape, transgender representation is only beginning to make its way into the mainstream. Trans characters like Alpha (Vipin Sharma) have a few moments where their oppression is mentioned but, on the whole, the film does not seek to “explain” trans-ness or make a big deal out of it. The oppressed are the oppressed and “Monkey Man” shows how oppression can turn to anger, vengeance and, ultimately, coming out on top.

“It’s time to remember who you are,” Alpha says to Kid, urging him to finish what he started.

He does, and we’re reminded that knowing who you are and not trying to be something else often brings out the greatest in people.

Rating: 8/10