The Monster (2016)
91 min., rated R.
Under the guise of a “Cujo”-like monster movie, “The Monster” is a hard-hitting, bleakly life-affirming drama about a mother and daughter testing their relationship. Skillfully made and deceptively simple, the film was written and directed by Bryan Bertino (2014’s “Mockingbird"), who clearly had more on his mind than just making a basic, violent horror-show. Back in 2008, Bertino made the unnerving, effectively minimalist home-invasion suspenser “The Strangers.” That was a scarier, more realistic effort, but similar to that film, two characters are already in a tense place with each other before they are terrorized, so forget the calm before the storm. Here, however, the emotional wounds within a contentious mother-daughter relationship overshadow the terror with the monster in the woods.
Making the decision to give up custody of her own child, single alcoholic mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is making the drive to drop off daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) to live with the father (Scott Speedman). They’re running late, and as it grows darker, it begins to rain. When a wolf races out into the middle of the road, Kathy swerves and gets them into a wreck. Aside from Lizzy being shaken up and Kathy hurting her wrist, the car will not start, so Kathy makes her daughter call an ambulance. Help first arrives in the form of a mechanic, but the wolf carcass has disappeared from the road. Something toothy and hungry awaits them in the darkness — and when it rains, it pours.
Through a flashback structure, “The Monster” capably fleshes out the pain and love in this strained, toxic relationship. It is pretty clear who is really the mother and who is the child. Even before facing the monster in the woods, Lizzy’s growth and responsibility have already accelerated, based on her upbringing. If any good has come of Kathy’s tough love, it makes Lizzy stronger and shapes who she is now. Mindfully placed against the present scenes in the woods, the scenes in the past are frightening on a more human level and bring the proper context that the viewer needs. A particular spat between the two that turns into a vicious screaming match is, believe it or not, more disturbing than a monster ripping off someone's limbs.
Marking a major against-type role, Zoe Kazan (2014’s “What If”) is fierce but still human, playing Kathy truthfully and unflinchingly. This selfish, volatile young woman seems to have always put being a warm and supportive parent last, but when coming to face with something extraordinarily dangerous, Kathy cannot help but return to being maternal. Mature beyond her years and reminding of a young Reese Witherspoon, Ella Ballentine is exceptional as the strong-willed Lizzy. The 15-year-old actress is an immense find, more than up to the task of carrying her weight alongside her more experienced screen mother. Since there has to be a body count, there are doomed characters who come in to potentially save Kathy and Lizzy—like tow truck driver Jesse (Aaron Douglas) and two paramedics—and Scott Speedman appears in flashback as Lizzy’s father. Largely, though, this is a showpiece for Kazan and Ballentine, who bounce between loathing and loving like a real mother and daughter.
“The Monster” is fairly standard but still not-bad when our characters must confront the literal monster. Writer-director Bryan Bertino is smart about not tacking on exposition about the shadowy creature and its origins. It is real but clearly a device, acting as a metaphor for Kathy’s addiction that has wedged itself between her and Lizzy; this isn’t unlike 2014’s “The Babadook,” which—spoiler alert!—used its title boogeyman as a manifestation of a mother’s grief and trauma used against her son. Helping the cause, too, is that the mini-Godzilla-like beast isn’t a CG creation but executed with practical effects. Bertino certainly has a way with mood and atmosphere in the rain, working with cinematographer Julie Kirkwood (2016’s “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House”) to slowly crank the tension as the viewer waits with Kathy and Lizzy until the monster pounces. Actually, though, “The Monster” is unexpectedly moving—and better—when focusing on Kathy and Lizzy, and Kathy and Lizzy alone.
Grade: B -