Monuments: Cliches like White Monuments, by Dayne Linford
Rather than mature, the indie dramedy has instead long since calcified into a brittle sub-genre, too inured with its perennial sadsack subject to achieve any real impact. This basic convention of a largely inoffensive, immature man-baby who responds to emotional trial by violating social niceties is so pro-forma it almost writes itself. ‘Almost’ because so many of these movies still have real, fatal problems at the script level, keeping them from achieving even their own slight aims, despite the good work of other talents. One such is Monuments, written and directed by Jack C. Newell, who’s obvious skill in the latter job unfortunately doesn’t make up for his deficits in the former.
Ted (David Sullivan), a professor in Egyptian antiquities and the sadsack mentioned previously, is tenuously on the mends with his wife, Laura (Marguerite Moreau), when she dies in a car accident. As he drifts around campus carrying her ashes for weeks, seeing her ghost here and there, her family begins to pressure him to allow them to lay her to rest in a kooky traditional ceremony. He flees the observance, taking the ashes with him, determined to spread them back in Chicago, where they met. Her family in pursuit, he meets some characters along the way, and eventually partners with his dead wife’s ghost to accomplish the task of putting her to rest.
Monuments can be quite inventive and playful, referencing old animated film, classic Hollywood musicals, and heist films in little vignettes that play well on their own, carried by the editing, animation, camerawork and sound design. Of these, a direct homage to Lotte Reiniger by way of ancient Egyptian mythology is the highlight of the film, along with composer Takénobu’s excellent, varied score. These sequences make nice little pastiches, but not a narrative, and the film stops dead in its tracks for extensive, on-the-nose dialogue scenes, shot in banal medium and reverse medium. Most egregiously, the same line of dialogue, functioning both as a moral log line for the film and a summary of its lead, is repeated ad nauseam by different characters throughout the film. Sullivan and Moreau’s charming and emotionally resonant performances mitigate these problems slightly, but can’t overcome fundamental flaws in the film itself.
Lackluster dialogue only highlights rickety script construction throughout, frustrating its own intentions. The tension of Ted and Laura’s estrangement at the beginning is immediately resolved in a light conversation. Her death following could be played for poignancy, and so carry some emotional heft, but instead becomes externalized into the conflict with Laura’s family. At a low point in Ted’s flight, the ashes lost, we might hope to see him express real, powerful grief, but Laura’s specter returns and now guides his choices to allow her to depart in peace. Just like that, Ted’s primary conflict, his reluctance to make peace with her loss, evaporates without any meaningful change or decision. Barely halfway through the film, Ted’s emotional arc is already finished.
Despite the talent supporting it, Monuments ends up being one of a million slight indie films about appreciating life and what you have, learning to let go, what’s really valuable, and on and on deep into the dustbin of clichéd moral takeaways. Like the others, an attempt is made to leaven this sincerity with a bit of the perverse, but the proverbial imp is neutered from the start, the need to be inoffensive and likable driving all other choices. All that remains is yet one more movie with nothing to say.