Monolith Weaves an Unsettling Mystery with a Mesmerising Performance from Lily Sullivan

Monolith opens in Australian cinemas on October 26.

At the centre of director Matt Vesely and writer Lucy Campbell’s feature film debut Monolith is a mesmerising and impressive performance from Lily Sullivan. Over the course of this tense 100-minute, mostly single-handed thriller, Sullivan comfortably shows why she’s a rising actor to watch out for with a performance that ranges from soft and comforting to furious and fearful, culminating in a memorable finale that pushes her to her limits.

Monolith follows Sullivan’s recently out-of-work journalist as she shacks up at her parent’s house to weather the fallout of an article that has effectively destroyed her reputation, and potentially her career. Huddled on an office chair, with an American editor breathing down her neck for something, anything, Sullivan’s never named interviewer anxiously flits through her emails, skipping the aggressively titled and potentially inflammatory ones before she lands on an anonymous email simply titled: “The Truth Will Out”. Opening it, she sees that it contains a name, a phone number, and curiously, the word ‘brick.’ In an act of ultimate avoidance strategy, and with a hint of a promise of an exclusive, she diverts her attention from her unfurling career catastrophe and does what any sensible person would do: starts a podcast.

The strength of Vesely’s direction and Campbell’s script is realised in the conversations that Sullivan’s interviewer has with her rotating catalogue of subjects. Some are willing guests, offering up honest and alarming details of the events that surround their black brick, while others are guarded and protective of their black brick story. Sullivan’s screen partner is often just a microphone or a mobile phone, with the occasional interaction with a pet tortoise, making the interviewer a complicated role to play, but Lily Sullivan’s captivating screen presence forever makes Monolith an engaging affair.

Seeing a potential mystery to unpick and exploit, the interviewer calls the number, disrupting a family event held by Floramae (voiced by the always engaging Ling Cooper Tang). The interviewer pokes and probes Floramae about what the ‘brick’ is, unearthing a lifetime of repressed trauma in her life and leaving the unsuspecting mum in a distraught state. Years earlier, Floramae came into possession of a black brick that disrupted her life forever more, and not long after Floramae came into possession of it, strange events started occurring. She mentions that she no longer has possession of her brick, noting that it was sold to an art dealer. This is a clearly distressing point for Floramae, causing her daughter to take over the phone call and demanding the interviewer stop harassing her mother.  

It’s not long before the interviewer discovers from Terence Crawford’s art dealer Klaus that Floramae’s brick is not the only one; in fact, he owns enough to stage an art exhibition of sorts. With each of her conversations, the interviewer is persistent, badgering, and cajoles her subjects into giving answers they don’t want to give, all the while they plead with her to stop the belligerent interrogation into the bricks for fear that more trauma unfurls.

Monolith relishes in immersing the audience into a quagmire of tension as we follow the interviewer down a foggy path where she tries to make sense of where the otherworldly black bricks have come from, and most importantly, the threatening and controlling presence they have on the lives of their ‘finders.’ As the podcast becomes a viral success, and more people start contacting the interviewer to share their experiences with these ‘black bricks’, the deeper down the hole she goes, inevitably leading her to a shocking and heart-pounding conclusion. Yet, given the genre-setting for this story, both Vesely and Campbell can’t escape the presence of some obvious red herrings that, while enjoyable, can’t escape being a well-worn genre-trope.

Monolith echoes the explorative nature of Black Mirror with a critique of the omnipresent grasp that technology has on our lives. In her investigations, the interviewer learns about strange, undecipherable glyphs that are only visible with the use of a spectrograph that reside within the brick itself. While never explicit, there is a sense that these bricks are mini-doom boxes (aka, mobile phones) that disrupt the possessors’ lives. In one ominous moment, the interviewers house is shadowed by a giant black brick hovering in the clouds, maintaining that level of unease and threat that lingers throughout the film. A clear resolution about the origins of meaning of the bricks is hinted at, but never explicitly provided, with Monolith closing on an uneasy inhale, rather than a calming exhale.  

A lot of the anxiety and tension within the film comes from the presentation of how the podcast sausage is made, with Tania Nehme’s editing conjuring compelling moments where the interviewer takes snippets of conversations and cruelly manufactures them into a publicly satisfying narrative. Sullivan’s interviewer has precious little concern for the impact that her podcast will have on the lives of those stories she’s sharing, as seen when we see her use the distraught voice recordings as bait for listeners to be hooked for the next episode leading her unwilling podcast ‘guests’ to leave distressed voicemail messages on her phone about how she has misrepresented them.

Michael Tessari’s intimate cinematography tracks Sullivan’s actions in an unsettling and omnipresent manner, utilising a grey-palette that adds a chilling effect to the interviewers actions. Tessari’s camera is supported by the expansive visual of the house the interviewer resides in, where floor to roof windows overlook an unending nature reserve that looms as a threat rather than the expected invitation of comfort. The narrative is thrust against the backdrop of a multi-million-dollar home, showing just how privileged the interviewer truly is.

Campbell’s script knows that a mystery is only as good as the storytellers we meet along the way, and with its impressive array of voice actors, from Ansuya Nathan, Erik Thomson, Damon Herriman, to Kate Box, amongst others, Monolith commands a compelling narrative that gives you enough threads to hold onto to try and guess just where it will all lead to. Part of that successful mystery box approach comes from the way that Monolith harks back to the golden days of the mystery podcast, echoing pinnacles of the genre like The Black Tapes Podcast and Limetown.

Even with its reliance on red herrings, Monolith leaves you with a feeling of welcome discomfort thanks to its satisfying and horrifying conclusion. It’s clear that Matt Vesely and Lucy Campbell are eager champions of genre-filmmaking in Australia, with a confident debut feature that utilises limited resources to create a story that’s expansive and genuinely otherworldly.

Director: Matt Vesely

Cast: Lily Sullivan, Ling Cooper-Tang, Terence Crawford

Writer: Lucy Campbell

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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