As often as I can, I like to go into films relatively blind. In the case of The Monster, my Facebook feed had been full of friends talking about how stellar the leading performances were and how great it was that they had gone with practical effects for the monster, but I didn’t know much beyond that. The only thing I do like to know is a film’s genre. Should I be primed to laugh, scream, cry? Given the name and the fact that it was by the same fellow who made The Strangers, I was pretty sure I knew where it was going to fall on that ultra-simplistic scale. I was ready for fear.
And there was some of that, to be sure. The Monster is scary, but that’s not why I’m still going to be thinking about it months down the line. No, I’m going to think about it because it made me cry.
Director: Bryan Bertino
Release Date: November 11, 2016
Though there are a couple of others who make brief appearances, The Monster is effectively a film with only two characters: Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). Kazan is 33 but looks ten years younger, and I’m pretty sure her character is closer to the latter than the former. Kathy is a terrible mother, pretty much what everyone assumes a young twenty-something with an already eight-or-nine-year-old child (or whatever age she is; Ballentine is 15, but I think she’s also playing someone younger) is like. You don’t root for her, and you definitely feel Lizzy’s exasperation more than her mother’s, but both of them feel extremely real, and their reactions to an increasingly horrific series of events serve as the focal point for everything that happens.
And what happens? Well, late at night, as Kathy drives Lizzy to be with her father, they hit a wolf that runs out into the street in the pouring rain. The car breaks down. They call for help, but they have to wait. The wolf disappears from the road. There’s a monster.
Most of the film takes place on that road, in that car. Everything that matters takes place between Kathy and Lizzy. Everyone else is just filler. Fortunately, both actors give genuinely spectacular performances, and I became immediately invested in their struggles, and I was invested through all of the horrors. I mean, it made me cry. Actually and truly. Movies in general don’t make me cry, and horror movies in particular don’t (at least, not from anything other than fear). And yet, much to my surprise, The Monster got to me. Kathy and Lizzy got to me. Everything from the two of them felt so real, so earnest and heartfelt, even in the midst of ridiculous events, they were grounded. They made everything work.
If you’ve seen It Follows (you should), or even just its trailer, you may remember the shot of the naked old man standing on the roof looking down at the main characters. It’s a cool shot, but it’s a problematic one. It doesn’t make any sense in the narrative itself. The creature wouldn’t do that for any reason other than because the director said, “This is gonna look awesome.” And he’s right, but it pulls you out of what is generally a pretty cohesive movie with reasonably well-conceived rules. Everything in The Monster is like that image on the roof. You can never know what the monster is going to do, but you always know when it’s going to do it: Right when the film needs it to. It comes at the apex of tension, right when you expect it. Maybe you just see it in the background of a shot. Maybe it pulls a character underneath a truck. Maybe it throws a severed arm onto the windshield of a car. It does whatever with no rhyme or reason, but it does it exactly when anyone who has ever seen a horror movie would expect it to.
The monster itself looks pretty good, and I am a fan of big practical effects, but it also is just… there. I went back and forth with the person I saw the film with on whether the monster represents anything (or whether The Monster is trying to make a grander point), and both of those conversations ended with a resounding, “Uhh… no?” Certainly the monster just seems like a monster, something there to drive the plot. It doesn’t connect to the struggle that the characters are going through in any meaningful way, and the lack of clear rules makes it hard to pinpoint any real purpose at all. And that lack of clear rules gets really problematic in the final act. Really, it just serves to get in the way of the drama.
So, the monster is by far the weakest part of the film whose name it occupies, but it’s a testament to just how good the dramatic relationship between Kathy and Lizzy is that it doesn’t really matter. While the monster waits in the darkness, biding its time for no clear reason, we get to spend time with Kathy and Lizzy. That’s an emotional rollercoaster, one that is often difficult to watch but impossible to look away from. There’s a decent argument to be made that the relationship deserves a better movie than the one it’s in, but that’s a needlessly negative way to look at it. We should be glad that we got to see it at all. I know I am.