Tuesday, January 24, 2017

In short: The Monster (2016)

Kathy (Zoe Kazan), a young alcoholic who is fucking up in her role as mother pretty badly, is taking her young daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) to her ex-husband (or possibly ex-boyfriend). She’s pretty sure Lizzy’s going to stay there too, their relationship having hit the point where something clearly has to give. Kathy is deeply unhappy with the situation while also unable to go about changing it in any productive way but she clearly loves her daughter and wants something better for her.

These problems will have to take a bit of a backseat belonging to occasional flashbacks, though, for somewhere on a road in a patch of woods right in the middle of nowhere, the car crashes into a wolf. Worse, it won’t start up again. Now, our protagonists manage to contact help but its arrival will take some time. They are, after all, not exactly on Broadway, there’s a heavy rain storm going on, and they are not the only people in trouble right now.

Unfortunately, the wolf didn’t cross the road to protest chicken jokes – it was hounded by a monster. Said monster might just be all too interested in taking a bite or ten out of Lizzy and Kathy.

Director Bryan Bertino’s earlier films – The Strangers and Mockingbird – never did much for me, so I found myself pleasantly surprised with The Monster. It’s a film that tells a small-scale story in a highly focused, and very atmospheric way, avoiding side-tracks and byways, and ending up wonderfully concise.

The titular monster isn’t a terribly interesting design, to be sure, and does look rather fake in some of the later sequences once we are getting a better look at it, but Bertino presents it very effectively as an unrelenting and uncaring threat (which you can of course read as an externalisation of what’s going wrong between mother and daughter, though really, it’s a monster), the sort of thing that won’t care if you deserve the horrible things it’ll do to you, or not.

It’s the ideal monster for a film that thrives on using very archetypal fears – darkness and the things in it, the loss of a loved one – to create a feeling of suspense and disquiet.

A large part of The Monster’s emotional effect – and it packs quite a wallop – is the authentic way it presents Kathy’s numerous failings and the things they do to Lizzy without becoming moralizing. Probably because it understands that being a bad parent, and an alcoholic, and a partaker in the worst boyfriends possible doesn’t mean you don’t love your daughter, nor that you ever set out to fuck up your own life. As it also understands that love isn’t necessarily enough, yet still has its dignity.

Which of course leads to a film that actually works for its emotional beats, hitting the audience (or at least me) not through emotional manipulation but through a kind of emotional truthfulness. All the while, The Monster also stays just a damn good film about a monster.

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