The Monster (2016)
Starring- Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine
Director- Bryan Bertino
R- language and some violence/terror
A mother (Zoe Kazan) and daughter (Ella Ballentine), stranded in the woods after a car accident, find themselves pursued by a terrifying, otherworldly creature.
You won’t hear me calling The Monster great. It has a lot of problems. It’s the sort of movie that’s more enjoyable in the moment than it is in retrospect. But I simply do not understand the way horror fandom seems to have just shrugged it off. To the extent that it’s been ignored, I think The Monster might be one of 2016’s great underrated movies.
Is it sort of workmanlike? Yeah. I don’t think it offers any great surprises. Whatever you imagined it to be based on the premise is probably what it is. But we haven’t had anything quite like it — anything worth taking seriously, anyway — in a long time, and I think people have overlooked how good it is. Maybe it’s just knocking down the genre dominos, but boy is it having a blast doing it.
Bryan Bertino — I’ve never seen The Strangers, so this is my introduction to his work — is the MVP here, or at least one of the two strongest candidates for the title (we’ll be getting to Zoe Kazan) in a moment. His handle on the tone and atmosphere of this creature horror is superb; this movie wrung me dry and left me exhausted. The moment the monster was introduced as a player — and a while before that, for that matter, when the characters only know that something is out there — the movie grabbed me by the throat and never once relaxed its grip. It’s short and contained enough that it’s under no obligation to let its audience breathe, so it never does. The threat hangs over everything; no matter where the characters are or what they’re doing, you know death is lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. It’s nearly insufferable — you can see the wicked smile on Bertino’s face as he teases you, dragging out the monster’s first appearance, setting up a million opportunities he refuses to take, letting your imagination fill in every unknown sound, every glimpse of movement. I was silently begging the movie to just scare me already and get it over with.
You could argue it’s a bit of a closed-room thriller — technically, the setting is an entire forest, but the leads spend most of the movie hiding in a vehicle, trying to figure out how to escape. Bertino makes the most of it, though: This dark forest is fully, frightening alive. The trees are dark, with flashes of sickly green from the feverish, yellow flickering of a nearby street lamp. Wind and rain course through the branches, keeping the leaves in constant movement — and every now and then, a shadow that seems as though it has to be the result of a living being. The forest is creepy long before we know something sinister lives there. It’s a shadowy hand that seems to close around the protagonists, who are locked in a small, claustrophobic car with nowhere to go and nothing to do about the darkness that engulfs them.
Every horrific moment lands — and the movie’s solid character work has a lot to do with that as well. Whatever its narrative flaws (and there are plenty), The Monster wastes no time bringing you into its characters’ inner lives and making their personalities and motivations stick. You have a thorough sense of this pair and their relationship with one another within the first five minutes, so there’s a strong rooting interest long before the creature even shows up. That it does so despite the lead being fundamentally unlikable is all the more impressive. It would be easy for a movie like this to go the usual route and give us a functional family with no significant reason for self-doubt fighting against entirely external forces, but Kazan’s character is established from the get-go as an emotionally (and even, sometimes, physically) abusive addict throwing her life away, and probably her daughter as well. But Kazan is tremendous in the role, playing the character not so much as the “evil stepmother” type but as broken beyond repair and lashing out at the world around her. The movie never gives you the reasons, but Kazan leaves you with no room to doubt. She finds a balance few performers in such roles are able to — she’s selfish and abusive, and her impact on her child is almost entirely negative, but you can see the part of her deep down that loves the kid and sees her as the only positive thing she could possibly leave behind at this point. As the daughter, Ella Ballentine is fine, perhaps a little too “child-actory” for my taste — she carries herself with an adult poise that I never really believed (obviously, with such a neglectful mother, the character would be strong and self-sufficient; I’m talking more about the maturity with which she speaks and reacts to things). But given the circumstances, she does a good job — being the kid in a horror movie is a thankless job, and she acquits herself well enough.
And what the hey — the creature’s pretty great, too! It appears to be mostly practical, and it’s a really well-realized effect. It looks like a living thing that belongs to its environment; there are no bad animatronics or obvious guy-in-a-suit moments. It’s tactile and threatening. I found it thoroughly convincing.
The script is where the whole thing falls apart. Obviously, as stated, it’s a little formulaic, but that isn’t a problem of all of the components work. I admire that it’s trying to be about something more than B-movie thrills, but the execution is a little clumsy. The metaphor is obvious and so broad there’s really no way to make it stick — abuse and addiction are monsters, and also there’s a real monster! They’re all monsters! Monsters! Get it? They’re bad! I appreciate the way the flashbacks to that effect deepen the characters, but they ultimately have no bearing on what’s happening in the main story. Without Kazan’s strength in the role, I’m not sure it’d work at all; her ability to capture the character’s neglect and nurturing in equal measure, and to make them feel like understandable pieces of one person’s psychology, is what sells it. Beyond that, the main storyline is a little thin — obviously, it’s a small movie with a limited in-universe timeframe (one night, more or less) and setting, and it’s about people running from a bloodthirsty monster, so it was never going to be a rich examination of the human condition, but it still needs to function and feel like it’s going somewhere. Too much of it feels like a waiting game, there are too many payoffs that aren’t set up, the character development doesn’t really satisfy the plot’s most immediate needs, and too many scenes feel purposeless. The characters also suffer from a bit of horror movie stupidity — not as dramatically as in worse films, but to an extent that’s worth noting. There’s a lot about the ending that’s unsatisfying because of this.
Even so, The Monster is really well-made, and it bugs me that it isn’t getting its due. A24 has really been knocking it out of the park with these low-budget genre films, and while The Monster is no The Witch or Green Room, it’s another notch in the belt. Give it a chance — if you’ve been dying for a quality modern creature feature, The Monster might be just what the doctor ordered.