There’s a good movie to be made about podcasts that traffic in unsolved mysteries where hosts rank cliffhangers and that hiccuping dramatic cadence over journalism. For half of its running time, the Australian thriller “Monolith” seems like it might be that movie. But the film, a debut feature from director Matt Vesely and screenwriter Lucy Campbell, falls sway to the clickbait tropes it intends to send up: red herrings, a tone of suffocating gloom and a desperation to keep the audience on the hook.
The sole actor on screen is Lily Sullivan, playing an unnamed Interviewer and audio ne’er do well who has recently fallen into disgrace over a j’accuse gone wrong. (Her inbox is bricked up with outraged emails.) Doxxed out of her home, she sets up a recording studio in her parents’ modernist mansion — the type with eerie floor-to-ceiling windows and so much nothingness outside that she may as well be hiding out on Mars. Her folks are abroad, but her flock is online, if she can come up with a hit show that will once again shower her in five-star ratings.
The mystery she selects involves a maid named Floramae (voiced by Ling Cooper Tang) who claims she once received, and lost, a bizarre black brick. She can’t explain how she got it and she can’t explain what it did. But the block — or rather, the stealing of the block by her employers — upended her life.
It doesn’t sound like much of a story. Yet Campbell’s screenplay is designed so that we, and Sullivan’s character, deduce the shape of it together, one interview at a time. These early questioning scenes have a clarity of purpose. Vesely zooms the camera into Sullivan’s pores to scrutinize her as she scrutinizes callers who claim that they, too, possess one of these mesmerizing rocks. The dialogue is crisp and Sullivan’s face so reactive that you can see the moment that a conversation has turned against her. It’s clear she doesn’t believe them; meanwhile, we catch on that we shouldn’t believe her. “I don’t want other people to twist your words,” she assures Floramae, only to immediately break out her editing software so she can twist them herself.
If the film had continued in this direction, it would have been a decent exercise in isolation. Shot in those cool gray tones that mean to imply sophistication, the visuals suffocate us inside the house in a way that suits the story, even if we do begin to feel like the pet turtle seen imprisoned in a fetid tank. (The ka-bump, ka-bump beat of a muffled pulse on the sound mix is a nice touch, as is Benjamin Speed’s muttering score.) Sullivan is, for a while, so captive to her microphone that I began to place bets on whether she’d stand; later, when she steps out for a smoke, the sight of fresh oxygen — even on screen — makes you want to gasp for breath.
In this airless round-the-clock work life (which, post-2020, the filmmakers are gambling the audience can relate to), it seems inevitable that the Interviewer is susceptible to going stir-crazy. But the way she does (and the ideas and imagery Vesely uses to get her there) are the half-baked nonsense of someone who snatched the microphone for a toast and forgot what they meant to say. The interesting questions raised earlier on evaporate; in their place are reveals that strain credulity and a climax could be slapped on a dozen other flicks. When in doubt, bleat “Class consciousness!” and hope that defenders will hector people into agreeing that’s important. “All you have to do is listen,” Sullivan intones. Fair, but you have to say something worth hearing.