A desolate wooded road. An evening rainstorm. Car trouble. A woman and her daughter in peril. And…a hungry monster. The Monster has a lot of familiar creature feature raw materials, much like writer/director Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers uses standard home invasion tropes. What elevates both films are three-dimensional characters and deeper drama that meshes with the well-crafted tension.
Zoe Kazan plays young mother Kathy, providing an edge that goes beyond the pink hair dye and patchy tattoos. Her pained, weary eyes sell the alcoholism and irritableness we catch glimpses of in the present as well as character-building flashbacks. The target of her ire is tween daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine, perfectly precocious in a non-saccharine, forced-to-grow-up-too-fast kind of way).
Kathy is driving Lizzy to her father when they hit a wolf and breakdown. The wolf is dead, but we know a car didn’t leave claw marks or a large tooth embedded in its body. There’s something big lurking in the woods, waiting to strike.
Bertino takes his time to get to the monster mayhem, establishing the friction between mother and daughter before diving into the conflict between woman and beast. Even beginning their voyage is a chore. Kathy sleeps in and delays their departure, a sign that Lizzy’s life has been one full of broken promises and chaos. Their verbal exchanges include strings of “I hate you!”s or f-bombs. But there’s also a bond, and Kazan and Ballentine both sell the concern when the other is distressed – as long as it wasn’t them who was doing the distressing. They also share some physical tics.
Also injecting some refreshing realism to the setup: in this secluded setting cell phones and emergency radios actually work. There’s no signal-hunting, but, also realistic, it takes a tow truck or an ambulance several minutes to reach the location. A giant fanged monster can dismember a human in just a few seconds, so that could be an issue, especially for a first responder who doesn’t have a lot of dialogue.
When the gore finally does come, it’s gnarly and realistic without getting grandiose. The slow reveal of the predator is also effective in creating anticipation and anxiety. The practical look works and it feels like a tangible threat, though one shot involving flames is a little suspect. Bertino and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood block and light scenes to give the impression something may be prowling within or just beyond the frame. Obscured views through rain-speckled windows, swaying branches, and dark shadows up the stress level.
As with all monster movies there’s metaphor, and despite obvious relational hostility and battling of personal demons, the message isn’t a corny one. It’s not that the “real monster” is the disease of addition, or depression, or emotional estrangement. The struggle is one that’s not so cleanly diagnosed and has a more abstract quality. Kathy and Lizzy are both damaged in certain ways and will probably never be completely free of what haunts them, always having trauma to confront and overcome until they can’t fight any longer.
Superbly acted, well-paced, and proficient with its chills, The Monster may not completely defy expectations, but it effectively delivers the genre goods while also providing something a bit more reflective.
*A24 will release The Monster both in theaters and On Demand on November 11