Overview: A monster traps a mother and her child in their car after an accident. A24; 2016; Rated R; 91 minutes.
Revisitation: We have seen this before. Of course, we have also said that very thing about this filmmaker’s work before. Specifically, Bryan Bertino’s directorial debut The Strangers, an out-of-nowhere home invasion movie that snuck up behind horror fans in 2008 looking a lot like dozens of other home invasion movies but cutting deeper than most, if not all, of them. Something about that film’s silences, its secrets, its shadows and its killers’ relentless and unexplored commitment to their task made a tired trope seem alive with new energy. The Monster sees Bertino come back with some of that; there’s a lot of admirable work in the use of sound, space, and darkness that serves as the architecture of the film’s thin terror and illustrates the heavy-handed thematic elements.
Regurgitation: But, comparatively, everything else is kind of empty mechanics this time around. The Monster sees recovering addict and unfit mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her tougher-than-she-should-have-to-be daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) marooned by a crash on a desolate stretch of road and then stalked by a massive, toothy monster (think Cujo meets virtually any small scale monster movie). I shouldn’t have to tell anyone who has seen the film that there is a metaphor here, but there is a big, stalking, hulking metaphor here, as big and basic as movie symbolism can be. Kathy and Lizzy are never on the same page. The mother is prone to throwing childlike, drug-driven tantrums and her daughter is always losing her cool a step behind but for reasons a child should never have to. At their most familial, their conversations never find synchronicity, with the parent being too desperate and unsure of her role and the younger having lost all hope in the relationship’s salvation. Flashback sequences are flipped loosely and without pattern or function into the central narrative to allow us to measure the history of the dysfunction. We learn that Kathy is an addict and Lizzy has never been given a reason trust her as a mother. There’s no patience or subtlety or grace in building this reading of addiction as the real monster. Just one thing stacked atop another with no thread stitching them together.
Resuscitation: That isn’t to say that either side—the dramatic or the horror—is bad on its own. At worst, the horror is just boringly familiar, and the drama at least allows the presentation of two unexpectedly powerful performances from Kazan and the young Ballentine. Maybe the issue is that each keeps getting in the way of the other, or that the intersection of both needs to be more well-planned and preferably earlier, but ultimately, the movie hits its sweet spot too late and for too brief a moment.
Overall: The Monster hoists a pair of intriguing performances upon filmmaking that feels tiresomely familiar.
Featured Image: The Monster, A24, now in the theaters and On Demand