Written and Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, and Aaron Douglas
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
You will fear what hides in the dark.
There’s an actual monster in The Monster—this isn’t a case where the title monster is a maudlin, thinly-veiled allegorical reflection of a child’s tumultuous life (though there’s plenty of childhood trauma). Bryan Bertino’s latest effort is, in fact, an actual monster movie, complete with a practical beast terrorizing a mother and daughter. Usually, that’d be enough to make me ecstatic, seeing as how I am constantly starved for respectable monster movies. Here, though, Bertino has crafted such gripping human drama that the monster almost feels incidental—or, at the very least, not the most immediately compelling thing about a movie titled The Monster, and that’s a hell of a thing.
Instead, what’s immediately absorbing is the delicate, fucked-up relationship between Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her daughter Lizzie (Ella Ballentine). When we meet the two, the latter is inexplicably the more mature of the two: she’s the one forcing her mother to drag herself out of bed since the two have to be on the road soon. They’re headed to see Lizzie’s dad, who has custody this particular weekend. Lizzie makes it clear that she’d like to stay with him permanently though, and the first of many flashbacks soon explains why: Kathy is both verbally and physically abusive, meaning she’s more than just the irresponsible screw-up we initially assume her to be. It’s a genuinely jarring revelation that adds an immediate tension to a car ride that feels like it could go sideways with any given exchange between the two.
But that doesn’t quite happen—instead, their trip goes south when they plow into a wolf, leaving them stranded on a deserted backroad with little recourse but to wait for an ambulance to arrive. Soon, it becomes clear that they aren’t exactly alone since an unseen creature lurks in the shadowy woods nearby, its inhuman growls announcing its menacing presence. Worse, it’s clearly hungry, as evidenced by its desire to tear into anything that happens to cross its path, be it man or another beast. Somehow, Kathy and Lizzie will have to overcome their toxic relationship in order to survive their latest hellish ordeal.
As a monster movie, The Monster is properly realized: Bertino is still operating very much in The Strangers mode by allowing the tension to from out of the character development and restrained craftsmanship. In lieu of lining the film with wall-to-wall carnage, Bertino crafts suspense by keeping the monster concealed in the thick, ominous woods. Julie Kirkwood’s rain-soaked, dreary photography forges a menacing atmosphere out of a truly minimalist setup that captures the absolute dread from being stranded in the middle of nowhere. The surroundings—enveloped in a thick mist shrouding total darkness—are virtually impenetrable: there’s mention of a nearby highway, but even it’s backed up due to a traffic accident. Minor details like that compound to create the impression of total hopelessness for Kathy and Lizzie.
When help does arrive in the form of a tow truck operator and ambulance drivers, Bertino doesn’t rush to dispose of them, choosing instead to craft more suspense. The former (played by Aaron Douglas) is initially a bit shifty—like Kathy and Lizzie, you’re not completely sure he’s trustworthy. And just when it becomes clear that he can be, he mysteriously vanishes, much to the shock and bewilderment of the two women who suddenly find themselves stranded alone again. Bertino playfully reveals just what happened to the ambulance driver, thus reaffirming his commitment to unnerve without taking shortcuts. The Monster has just enough explicit violence and carefully orchestrated jolts to function as a well-oiled creature feature—even without its commitment to character development.
Remarkably, it’s not the monstrous stuff that lingers here—sure, it’s finely crafted and should serve as a template for future low-budget creature work, but what’s more impressive is just how Bertino prioritizes the dramatic elements. Usually, even those monster movies that do bother with actual character work do so to grease the wheels and set the stage for the eventual carnage. Bertino reverses this dynamic completely by peppering the main narrative with various flashbacks that capture a more accurate portrait of this utterly broken relationship. I imagine a lesser film trying this approach would just result in me longing for more monster action, yet this one coaxed the exact opposite: there were times when I found myself wishing for another flashback since I was so absorbed with the character work.
Bertino’s capacity for nuance is particularly refreshing. Early scenes between Kathy and Lizzie create one impression: that the former must somehow be a vile, twisted soul. “Oh, she must be the real monster,” you assume, rolling your eyes at the title’s obvious double entendre. A more complicated picture emerges with every new flashback, however: we learn that Kathy has spent motherhood struggling with the type of monsters that whisper to you from a nearly empty bottle of booze that’s been tossed out in a desperate fight against alcoholism. What begins as apparent misery porn depicting a young girl’s struggle to escape abuse evolves into a complex depiction of an impossible bond between a mother and daughter. Despite everything that’s unfolded between them, Lizzie still clings to her mother’s love throughout each harrowing ordeal, whether it involves cradling a half-conscious Kathy on a grimy bathroom floor or bravely fending off the monster with a makeshift torch.
It’s a refreshing, honest portrayal of broken relationships, something that’s rare in any movie, much less one that features a creature that feeds on human intestines. I love that Bertino reserves some measure of sympathy for Kathy where most people wouldn’t—as bleak as this film can get, there’s some dogged sense of hope beating in its twisted heart. While it’s not exactly about redemption—even Kathy eventually realizes she’s irredeemable—The Monster is at least about atonement, and it’s well-realized through the leads’ powerful, gripping performances. Ballentine is staggeringly mature as Lizzie, a girl who knows she’s been a shitty hand in life but has the resolve to soldier on anyway. Just as Lizzie shoulders these burdens, so too does Ballentine carry the film for long stretches, effectively acting as the film’s empathic center. Without her, The Monster wouldn’t be nearly as resonant.
Of course, the same praise must be afforded Kazan. Given just how awful Kathy sometimes acts, it’s no small feat that Kazan finds the sympathetic kernel that drives her character arc. Within the space of 90 minutes, she evolves from an abusive, unrepentant mess to a broken mother forced to reckon with herself. Bertino and Kazan aren’t unrealistic, nor do they stoop to cloying moralizing: Kathy doesn’t suddenly become World’s Greatest Mom, and these two don’t reconcile during some grand, sweeping moment. The Monster is more subtle than that, and it’s Bertino’s restraint that ultimately impresses: several moments arise that could turn this into treacly junk, but he avoids them at every turn as he masterfully weaves the dramatic character elements into the typical demands of a monster movie.
None of this should come as a surprise in the wake of The Strangers and the underappreciated Mockingbird, two wildly different efforts that nonetheless reveal Bertino’s aptitude for molding effective, distinctive horror out of routine setups and aesthetics. With The Monster, he’s made a creature feature where the humans are more compelling than the creature, and how often do we get to say that?
The Monster is now available on Blu-ray from A24 and Lionsgate Home Entertainment. The disc features a 7-minute glimpse behind-the-scenes that includes interviews with the cast and crew.
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