The Monster [Review]
A mother and daughter drive through the dark and the rain on a lonely country road. Had the mother not been hungover, had she heeded her daughter’s angry commands to get out of bed on time, they wouldn’t be driving so late at night. They are incredibly late to deliver the girl to her father even before a freak accident strands them on the side of the road. It is a bad situation, about to be made much worse once mother and daughter realize that something unknowable is inhabiting the woods that surround them.
This is the brilliantly simple setup for The Monster, the newest film by Bryan Bertino, the director of the underrated 2008 thriller The Strangers. Like his first film, The Monster focuses on a single pair of people with an already strained relationship dealing with a malevolent force, and while this most recent effort is not as strong as his first in terms of scares, it still stands to be one of the more interesting and affecting horror films in recent memory.
Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) and Kathy (Zoe Kazan) in The Monster.
The strength ofThe Monster lies in the relationship that Bertino, who also wrote the film, builds around his leads. Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is a young mother with a drinking problem, an addiction that has not so much strained her relationship with her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) as torn it to shreds and lit it on fire. The most earnest Sundance drama could only dream of reaching the extremes of emotional rawness and honesty found so effortlessly in this monster movie. The opening scene, which finds Lizzy cleaning up after Kathy’s latest binge, trying to prepare them for the coming road trip, is a fairly bleak peek into their lives, and enough to give one the gist of their relationship. A film with less on its mind may have used that small conflict as its sole point of tension before the appearance of the titular monster binds them together. The Monsterhas other plans.
You see, horror films have certain rules that they tend to stick to. Children are often safe, and a parent will do anything to protect their child. As things begin to go wrong for Kathy and Lizzy, one might expect that these rules will be followed. Between bouts of visceral, mortal terror as the knife-fanged monster makes itself known, Bertino cuts to elegant, brutal flashbacks of “normal life” for this fractured family. It is to his credit as a writer and director that these flashbacks both help to break up the tension of the outright horror of their present situation while also serving some of the most painful and devastating moments in the film.
There are no words strong or true enough to praise the work done by Kazan and Ballentine in these flashbacks. A fight in a garage between the two of them escalates and climaxes with a tragic, furious energy that breaks your heart in half. A beat with Lizzy speaking to her drunkenly unconscious mother seizes your breath. Kazan never shies away from making Kathy truly repellent, and yet she also never allows the audience to lose sight of all the ways in which she is made that way. Her sin against her daughter isn’t one of malevolence or laziness, but of weakness. Likewise, Ballentine locates in Lizzy the raw, inarticulate fury of betrayed childhood that most movies would never allow an actress to tap into, let alone unleash so boldly. It is a miracle of both writing, acting, and directing that these scenes, volatile as they are, only serve to grow the audience’s affection for these characters.
They inform the present, monstrous action in terms of both plot and emotion. We understand that for all of her disappointment and anger, Lizzy still loves and needs her mother with her. We also know that Kathy feels the drive to be better than she is but does not know or cannot walk the proper path to being what her daughter needs. Every poor choice, every wrong move, is made all the more tragic and tense because we know that these are dynamics these two have lived through before, though never in a situation quite so dire.
Most monster movies have a tendency to love their creature more than their characters. It says a lot about the priorities of this film that to this point I’ve only mentioned the titular monster out of necessity. A practical effect, the thing has a presence and physicality that makes it at once otherworldly and yet terrifyingly present. Bertino plays the overt horror-movie moments fair, shunning jump scares and instead making expert use of negative space and conspicuous absence to wind up tension. Everything involving the monster is pretty standard, well-executed creature feature stuff, hampered in part by the familiar expectations of the genre. But these above-average horror scenes melded with this wider story make this a movie well worth seeking out.
That.s because it is the story of mother-and-daughter that gives The Monster it’s greatest hook: If Kathy can fail and hurt her daughter so much while at the same time desiring to do right by her, what possible hope is there for either of them against a being that only wishes them harm?