On manifestations of fear, pangs of guilt, and avenues of redemption all rolled into one Monster
The Monster A24
Director: Bryan Bertino
Screenplay: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Ella Ballentine, Zoe Kazan and Aaron Douglas
Rated R / 1 hour, 31 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
They're never just monsters, are they.
I mean, they almost can't be. No matter how unaffected or unpretentious the idea, no matter how simple or straightforward the ambition, a movie monster will take on a life of its own. Will become a manifestation of something greater than itself, a representation of not just something to be feared but fear itself. That's how a nightmare works, isn't it? It gets its power only from the dreamer, or the prey.
From grand political metaphors to misshapen psychological projections, filmmakers embrace that inherent truth about their monsters in varied ways. (Between the monster and what the monster signifies, all such movies contain both, whether or not they choose to exploit or emphasize them.) Bryan Bertino's The Monster knows this blueprint only too well. It is a movie every bit as stripped-down and to-the-point as its title, limited primarily to one night, one location, two characters, and yes, one monster lurking amongst them. And being well aware of said blueprint, the film makes sure that titular creature - whatever it is - lingers in the psyche of those two characters before it ever shows up on camera, and no doubt long afterward.
But The Monster suffers from an uneasy balance between its literal and metaphorical value - between monster-as-monster and monster-as-giant symbol. Its requirements for the one undermine the logistics for the other. The film revolves around the troubled relationship between a young girl and her addict mother, and the car accident that strands them on an isolated road on the proverbial dark, stormy night. The creature awaiting them in the surrounding woods is merely the symbolic cherry on top of what is already another ruined night in a nearly broken relationship.
For the already-skittish Lizzy (Ella Ballentine, who looks a bit like a 10-year-old version of Fiona Apple), the monster is every fear that's ever haunted her dreams and fed her imagination come to wretched, growling life. "Monsters aren't real," comes her voice in the opening narration, spoken as if she's trying to convince herself. The film will prove otherwise, setting the stage for a coming-of-age tale about Lizzy conquering her fears.
For the mother, Kathy (Zoe Kazan), the monster represents every danger that, she knows, she hasn't fully prepared her daughter to deal with - and an avenue for redemption after years wasted on booze and pills. (The two are on the road in the first place because Kathy is dropping the kid off with her ex, with whom Lizzy would rather be living anyway.)
It takes a while before those things finally manifest in physical form. But when it happens, it does so in exquisite fashion. The film's greatest strength is the monster itself - a truly impressive physical creation that evokes the foul sliminess of Alien's xenomorphs, the toothy visage and snout of a roided-up Komodo dragon, and the unnerving predatory posture of Ghostbusters' Terror Dogs. (The effectiveness of the monster, the film's visual centerpiece, should put to shame all the bigger-budgeted films that rely on cheaper-looking CGI animation to create their beasts.) Bertino gives the monster a striking introduction, its presence slowly revealed, out-of-focus, quietly and patiently hovering behind Lizzy as if ready to pounce - an altogether graceful juxtaposition of predator and prey, of fear and the physical embodiment of that fear.
But no matter how potent its imagery and no matter how figurative its intent, there's still a thriller to be told. The film's self-awareness about what it all means - the way the monster's presence perpetually reflects the characters' states of mind and visually accentuates their vulnerability - only goes so far. The logistics of the story are weighted so much toward the allegory that it entirely undermines the more practical genre intentions. Structurally, you could at least make the case that the monster's presence ebbs and flows based on the changing emotional/psychological currents (although after one viewing I can't recall if that's actually the case), but mostly it comes across as bad staging. And the bad staging seems to be a direct result of the minimal radius in which the action takes place.
To be clear: The car is stopped. In the middle of nowhere. There is nowhere, really, for anyone to go. And this monster is there the entire time. And yet Bertino bends over backwards to make it seem like Lizzy and Kathy are hiding from it (or even can hide from it), or can somehow manipulate it. There's no sense that the monster is sadistically toying with them, nor that it's the kind of hunter intent on stalking its targets even when they're sitting ducks. What are you waiting for, Monster? Your food is, at most, a few yards away from you at literally every moment of this rainy night.
The film goes to great effort to make the beast seem as threatening as it can be, and yet he seems to be more bark than bite. That's another corner the film writes itself into - by limiting the cast to basically two characters (plus a tow-truck driver), it can't exactly let the monster start picking characters off one by one. That'd be a hell of a short movie.
Bertino favors bare-bones setups for his films. His 2008 debut The Strangers - which was about three-fourths of a great horror movie - fit a similarly spare profile. Isolated house. Middle of the woods. A wife, a husband. A home invasion, unexplained. The Monster has the same tendencies: Isolated road. Rainy night. Broken-down car. Monster. He's a skilled enough filmmaker to make something robust out of such lean ingredients. But here those ingredients double back on each other, the immensity of the monster's power perpetually undercut by its inability to do anything.