Movie Review: ‘The Monster’
Starring: Zoe Kazan and Ella Balletine
Plot: A mother and daughter are stalked by a monster after their car breaks down on the side of the road.
Over the last few years, maybe the last decade, horror has been changing the way they get scares. They long settled into simply manipulating atmosphere with camera angles and music choices to put the audience at unease without leaving too lasting of an effect, but now they seem to be investing in the performances of their actors. No more right out of school amateurs cutting their teeth in a garbage genre effort. Instead, just as it is with sad and happy movies, the empathy resulting from the performers is how they are getting us to emotionally react.
This is where The Monster really excels. Zoe Kazan is Kathy, a reluctant maternal figure, drinking and smoking and treating her daughter more like a little sister than her own offspring. It is a responsibility she takes very lightly as seen through a number of strategically placed flashbacks. One such flashback has a particularly hungover looking Kazan in a blazer screaming expletives at her daughter about how they’ll be late to the talent show while young Ella Balletine’s Lizzy sobs about not even wanting Kazan’s self-destructive energy there. Balletine is expertly vulnerable, bouncing back and forth from the uncontrollable outbursts of a rightfully upset child to a calm and steady presence that has accepted her mother’s behavior. This is the key to the success of this movie. It is a relationship that would be worth watching whether a monster was stalking them or not.
However, there is a monster, and that might be a bigger detriment than attempting real drama in horror. Lizzy is looking forward to a visit with her father. Kathy, reluctant as ever, drags her feet about getting there, trying to have a heart to heart with Lizzy. It is finally dawning on Kathy that Lizzy might stay with her father and not come back. As that reality sets in, their car breaks down during a rainy night after hitting a wolf running across the road. The wolf was being chased by a creature that has now set its sights on the mother-daughter duo. This large, shadowy practical effect hovers beyond the trees, slinking in and out of the background. It is well-designed, except for the usual creature-feature mistake of making the teeth too big for it to conceivably close its mouth. That gives it a real puppet look. The rainy night and all the creature foreplay in the darkness are exhausted tropes, but for the first time in a long time, they are being reacted to by actors up to the task. They are better at convincing us of the urgency and danger of the situation than any on-screen imagery might.
The problem is the monster is clearly not some undiscovered predator or otherworldly creature. It is a sledgehammer of a metaphor for the thing that is causing the distance between Kathy and Lizzy. Alcoholism would be an easy answer. Maybe stronger narcotic use or child abuse? We do get one flashback of Kathy hitting Lizzy. Maybe something more intangible like denial, anger, or hatred. Unfortunately, the Venn diagram of being explicit and being implicit has a small overlap where a filmmaker may want to continue hiding the root cause of all this trauma but has danced so close to a solid answer that they really should just reveal it. That’s what happens here and the audience ends up with some emotional blue balls. Not vague enough for interpretation, not specific enough for satisfaction, if that makes any sense. Despite this, Kazan and Balletine’s performances still make this movie worth watching.