2016 R USA Bryan Bertino 91 mins.
The Monster is written and directed by the extremely talented Bryan Bertino, who also directed and wrote the 2008 home invasion film, The Strangers—a film that would certainly make my list of the best films of the 2000s. The Monster shares some of the things that make The Strangers a great film: its plot is spare, focused (without distraction) on the palpable threat to its isolated protagonists; it succeeds in very large part because of the undeniable strength of its actors: Zoe Kazan and Ella Ballentine are just as brilliant in The Monster as Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman were in The Strangers. And, in both films, Bertino expertly weaves in a larger frame of meaning—religion and the presence of evil in The Strangers (as I wrote about elsewhere) and the complicated love (and hate) of mother-daughter relationships in The Monster.
The Monster centers on Lizzy (Ballentine) and her shockingly young mother, Kathy, played brilliantly by Zoe Kazan. Kathy, it is clear, is not now and never was ready to have a child. She struggles with all kinds of addiction and, in one flashback scene, comes perilously close to being downright abusive of her daughter. Lizzy, on the cusp of adolescence, loves her mother passionately, which means she hates her for her many failures with an equally violent passion. It is in this context that mother and daughter set out on a journey—and they set out very, very late since Kathy is incapable of getting out of bed. They are driving to Lizzy’s father’s house where she is going to live. It’s never clear how this change in custody transpired—whether it was demanded by mother, father, or daughter. But the trip to Lizzy’s father’s house becomes more than just a car ride as Bertino cuts back and forth between key moments in Kathy and Lizzy’s tempestuous and painful relationship and their present almost mythic journey through oppressive dark woods and torrential rain. And when Kathy hits what seems to be a wolf and disables their car, mother and daughter are threatened by a still more tangible threat.
Here’s the trailer:
While I very much liked The Monster—and thought the acting was exceptional, it is nonetheless a less successful film than The Strangers. One of the most significant problems with The Monster lies in, well, the monster. The Strangers was brilliant in its visual representation of its threat—the white masks of the intruders glimmering in the background, offering a sense that inexplicable evil was lurking, omnipresent. In a way, the threat in The Monster is similar: it is not explained (a good thing)—it’s just there, like it’s always been there. But it never seems as terrifying, and that’s in part because of its unreality: the creature seems to have lurched out of Jurassic Park and its clear invocation of that film (for me, at least) detracted from the terror. It’s also just not filmed very well—the monster’s outlines are blurred in the corresponding blackness of the woods and the rain. Whereas in The Strangers, the distinct masks of the intruders would suddenly and starkly appear out of the background, here it’s just one blurry black mass.
I think there may be a reason for Bertino’s having filmed his creature this way: he’s trying to get at the way in which the monster is profoundly a part of the psychological reality of both Kathy and Lizzy. The monster here really isn’t as real as the monsters in The Strangers. The blackness of the mise-en-scène represents, then, that the threat in this film is always also internal, that, as in many horror films, the monster emanates from the darkness of what the characters themselves have done and are capable of doing. And I do think this is actually a really interesting aspect of the film: we see both characters struggling with monsters that are both psychologically real and also made manifest in the woods around them. Visually, though, the monster was disappointing and just never particularly frightening.
The Monster provokes inevitable comparison to The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 20014) in the shared thematic preoccupations of both films. While The Monster is definitely worth watching, the comparison favors The Babadook, both for its greater psychological complexity and for its more effective representation of the monsters haunting the fraught bonds that tie mother and child inexorably together.