THE MONSTER (2016)
Director: Bryan Bertino
Cast: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Aaron Douglas, Scott Speedman
MPAA Rating: (for language and some violence/terror)
Running Time: 1:31
Release Date: 11/11/16 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 11, 2016
The monster of The Monster is essentially a metaphor for itself. It exists as evidence of awful things in the big, wide world, especially compared to the terrible things of the microcosm of the world in which any single person lives. It's not necessarily an excuse for those terrible, little things, although the movie comes a little too close to that sentiment for comfort. No, the point is that the worse things will bring us together, no matter what bad things may be between us.
The bad situation here is the relationship between a single mother and her mature-beyond-her-years daughter. We first see Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), the daughter, waking early in the morning and proceeding to clean up after her mother Kathy's (Zoe Kazan) partying the night before. Empty beer bottles line the coffee table in the living room. She has to pack for both herself and her mother for an upcoming road trip, before cleaning up the dirty clothes from her mother's bedroom floor. Kathy sleeps through her alarm clock, and Lizzy has to use the old parenting trick of opening up the blinds to let the sunlight in to coerce her mother to start getting out of bed.
The role reversal of parent and child is obvious. Kathy is irresponsible. She is also, clearly, an alcoholic. Lizzy is more of a parent to her mother than Kathy is to her daughter.
The trip is for Lizzy to visit her father. The time in the car is rough as mother and daughter argue constantly. At one point, though, Kathy announces that she realizes Lizzy isn't going to be returning to her after this trip. Lizzy insists her mother is wrong, but it's a half-hearted denial. A series of flashbacks help to explain, not how all of this began, but how far gone this relationship is. Kathy seems to realize this fact, although too late for it to be of any good.
These are two very strong performances at the heart of the movie. Kazan's turn is vital, since the character is more pitiable than sympathetic from the start. As more information about the dynamic between mother and daughter is revealed, Kathy could easily lose both of those qualities, but Kazan convincingly offers another side once an external threat presents itself—a protective streak that seems counter to Kathy's nature until then.
Ballentine's performance imbues beyond-her-years wisdom and strength of character without treading into the territory of false precociousness that such a character could bring about. Once the screenplay, written by director Bryan Bertino, brings about another reversal of established roles, Ballentine effectively transitions to the state of a vulnerable kid who's afraid of the dark.
It turns out the Lizzy's fear of the darkness is justified. After hitting something in the road, Kathy's car spins out, injuring the mother's wrist and leaving Lizzy shocked. The car won't start, and there's a dying or dead wolf in the road ahead of them. They call for help, and while waiting for a tow truck, the wolf disappears. There is something else, grunting and wheezing, in the woods surrounding them.
Bertino follows a familiar pattern in the central plot, in which Kathy, Lizzy, and a very short list of disposable ancillary characters are terrorized by the thing that roars in the night. The structure, in which Bertino intercuts those flashbacks to underscore how toxic the mother-daughter has been until this point, keeps it from becoming too routine and allows the focus to remain primarily on these characters. The transfer of responsibility and caretaking is the point, as Kathy finds her way to becoming a mother.
The feelings of routine does eventually arrive. Bertino and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood do a fine job creating an ominous atmosphere from and a restrictive sense of space out of the isolated road where Kathy and Lizzy are stranded. The rain pours and ceases, only to pour again, creating an aural shield for the thing in the forest to go about its stalking and killing business. Despite the temptations of the locale, the filmmakers don't resort to cheap tricks involving the dark—no cheating of the monster suddenly popping out of nowhere with no setup.
If anything, we see too much of the creature, which looks like a stout, oily version of the Jersey Devil. It's not a visual effect, at least, and the combination of puppetry and a man in a suit is, surprisingly, only occasionally unconvincing. Its behavior, which is akin to the monster playing with its food, is more in line with the necessity of plot structure, though. Its actions rise and fall without reason, until the climax demands that it keeps going until some resolution is reached.
This is, above all else, a fairly standard monster movie featuring a fine location and a fine-enough beast. The central relationship almost turns The Monster into something more thoughtful about the ways we can put differences aside for a greater threat to our safety, as well as exploring the particulars of this strained mother-daughter bond. The movie doesn't quite reach that point of something deeper, and by the time it does reach that climax, it's just another horror show.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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