Editor’s Note: A24 will release THE MONSTER In Theaters and On Demand on November 11. The film is available now exclusively on DirecTV.
Written by: Matt Molgaard
Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Cast: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Aaron Douglas
You want to talk about a rocky relationship? Keep your lips sealed and instead watch Bryan Bertino’s newest film, The Monster.
The story wastes no time on homing into the familial stress between mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). Kathy’s life has been anything other than peaches, and to make matters worse, she’s going to lose her child to her grandparents, as she’s clearly not a fit mother. But one paralyzing question remains: will these two even reach their destination?
While making a long treacherous drive to Lizzy’s grandparents’ home they run into some unorthodox troubles. It all begins with a little roadkill, as Kathy – eyesight hindered by the merciless rain – hits a dog in the middle of the desolate road. But as it turns out, these ladies may have done than canine a major favor; Lizzy discovers what looks to be a tooth embedded in the animal. But this tooth, well, it didn’t come from any animal known to man. No, this chomper belongs to something else entirely.
If I am to avoid spoilers I’ve got to omit the strange occurrences that soon follow. From the random stranger making a stop to ensure these two are safe, to the watcher tucked behind nearby foliage, there are a handful of surprises in store for this mother-daughter duo.
One may think a broken down car on a desolate stretch of roadway in the middle of a nasty storm is enough to incite frustration and panic, and in truth it is. But what unfolds soon after the accident takes paralyzing fear to astounding new heights.
Before we get into the focal conflict and the revelation of the titular beast, it’s important to stop and admire the parallel story. While it isn’t necessarily an over-pronounced piece of the narrative, it is very, very successful in illuminating the rigidity between mother and daughter. As a father, the flashbacks most certainly hit home.
A strained relationship between guardian and child however, pales when compared to the plight that Kathy and Lizzy about to face.
If young Lizzy thought she was living a monstrous life while dealing with her mother’s substance abuse and general parental desertion, she’s going to reevaluate her belief of monsters. There is a real life, bona fide monster stalking the woods, circling these few living humans and apparently, it’s hungry.
Lizzy, who will no doubt come face to face with this beast can now rightfully belittle every dreadful moment she’s experienced with her mother. This is a threat of unknown proportions, and it’s doubtful the monster is picky with what, or who, it eats.
Back on the lonely stretch of road both mother and daughter hole up in their car. This isn’t just to avoid the downpour, it’s an attempt to evade the horrifying beast that’s got it eyes on a new feast. Apparently the dog this thing chewed up didn’t quite sate the monster’s appetite.
As the movie barrels forward at a respectable clip viewers are guaranteed to find themselves both frightened and at extreme ease. The story makes for taut entertainment, viewers left to predict future outbursts of violence. But Bertino crafts an admirable semi-slow burn effect that appropriately introduces tensions far distanced and paralyzing from simple family outbursts.
Once it’s time for the monster to attack, little holds it back, and mere mortals – unarmed – certainly aren’t fit to toe the line with a brute of this inhuman caliber.
Ultimately the question is rather simple: can mother and daughter survive such a vexing ordeal?
Once we finally get a solid look at the monster in the woods, director Bryan Bertino opts to hold nothing back; the monster appearing in a multitude of sequences. And this monster, unlike so many other screen monsters looks legitimately terrifying. Its mutated body, near-unrecognizable head (except for those gnarly eyes) and rows and rows of razor sharp teeth ensure that audiences are going to be caught off guard. This is the coolest looking screen monster we’ve seen since Toby Wilkins brought the monster in Splinter to life.
Mother and child finally begin to bond, and the idea that life-threatening incidents can bring broken families together is really supported here. In the opening act of the film we’re inclined to scold Kathy, as she’s such a waste of space and poor excuse for a mother. The only person she’s got eyes on is herself. But when she and her daughter find themselves stranded with a paralyzing and hideous predator lurking in the foliage on either side of the road, Kathy understands that she may not survive it, he maternal instincts really kick in, which helps to redeem her character in the eyes of viewers.
In regards to the film’s aesthetic quality, I can only praise Bertino to no end. From the outdoor shots of a desolate stretch of blacktop, to the vibrant illumination of the falling raindrops, right down to the jaw-dropping monster who’s chosen its next meal, the film is gorgeous. The Monster also features some superb editing thanks to the talented Julie Kirkwood, who helps to seal any plot holes or unrealistic decisions that may or may not have existed. Ultimately, Kirkwood plays a pivotal role giving us a very smooth film.
Again, I’ve got to offer a bow of satisfaction for the film, and I simply can’t praise the cast and crew enough.
As for that hideous monster… well, that right there is a thing of true practical beauty itself, crafted by the very skilled Ben Belanger and Mathieu Bissonnette-Bigras.
The Monster isn’t afraid to hold back in regards to commentary, but how you interpret the commentary may very well depend on your status as a parent. For me, the film felt like being slapped across the face, reprimanded for every beat I’ve missed over the last 15 years. There’s also a clear message that, whether you’re an ideal parent or not, and whether you’ve taken to neglecting your offspring or not, their lives are precious, and while all life must meet an inevitable end… why not extend your child the greatest love and support you have to spare. Give them a chance, at least. The world’s a harsh place, and the youngins deserve someone to believe in.
After the sketchy Mockingbird, Bertino is back to doing what he does best, creating bone chilling, claustrophobic tales that forces a hefty dose of sympathy for onscreen characters. In other words, Bertino’s latest, The Monster is one of the greatest films to see release in 2016.