Director: Bryan Bertino
Writer: Bryan Bertino
Producer: William Green, Aaron L. Ginsburg, Bryan Bertino, Adrienne Biddle
Stars: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Aaron Douglas, Scott Speedman
A mother and daughter struggling with their troubled relationship are stalked by an unknown creature while stranded on a remote road.
It’s intriguing in hindsight that filmmaker Bryan Bertino was so far ahead of a trend with “The Strangers” in 2008, he effectively invented the home invasion horror subgenre with a movie still held in perpetually high regard. Yet by the time his sophomore feature “Mockingbird” (review here) dropped DOA to VOD in 2014, “found footage” films were so far past their peak, the mountain’s top could no longer be seen through the clouds.
With his third writer/director effort “The Monster,” Bertino again finds himself late to a game, inserting an intimate parent/child study into a creature feature at a time when audiences have already consumed “The Babadook” (review here) and “Under the Shadow” (review here). Excellent performances from Zoe Kazan and Ella Ballentine charge drama with heartbreaking emotion, but a slow pull on the scare side of things leaves “The Monster” fighting to carve a compelling identity in a niche two other films have already nailed.
Kathy is a neglectful young mother. From the background glimpsed in flashbacks, it wouldn’t be a leap to assume her education ended at high school, ambition ended with addiction, and adulthood was entered through an unplanned pregnancy.
Kathy regards her daughter Lizzy like a barely-tolerated kid sister. By necessity, Lizzy, probably around 10 years of age give or take, has become a wise-beyond-her-years independent, playing parent to an oversleeping, disconnected mother who can only be relied on to be unreliable.
Their ongoing seesaw of hugs and “I hate you” at a point of mutual exhaustion, mother and daughter reluctantly realize it may be best if Lizzy lived with her estranged father instead. As interiors roil with unspoken affection while exteriors alternate between resentment and silence, Kathy takes to the road to escort Lizzy to her presumably promising new beginning.
Darkness, rain, and a wolf in the road conspire for an abrupt change in plans. Kathy’s car is disabled, her body is injured, and the women are caught stranded on a remote road to nowhere. Weather, wolves, and waiting for help to arrive are not among primary concerns, however. Of more immediate importance is the unidentifiable creature that, in making Kathy and Lizzy its prey, challenges their mother/daughter bond to be stronger than this predator lurking among the trees.
The unimpeachable strength of “The Monster” is the human drama at its heart. Bertino expertly stages each non-creature scene between mother and daughter to develop with relatable authenticity, as though plucking wrenching-to-watch moments straight from the driveways of neighbors, perhaps our own living rooms. Kathy’s yelling can be terrifying. Lizzy’s cowering can be frightening. Each actress exhibits frailty and fierceness as they key into each other and never falter from that connection.
One might wish “The Monster” didn’t bother with a creature at all. As skilled as Bertino is at tightening intensity between Kathy and Lizzy in their scenes at home, suspense timing is way off once the beast drops between them. Slow scenes spend extensive time setting up, leaving the window open so long that tension airs out before the pane finally snaps down.
“The Monster” regularly pauses for flashback interludes. These are among the movie’s best scenes, except they are mistimed to interrupt momentum with exposition servicing characterizations already established. This would work if the past and present threads rolled in concert to be thematic parallels, but the monster part of the story emerges almost solely as an opportunity for redemption. The beast then only offers one more beat for Kathy and Lizzy as their relationship plays out in parts instead of with a rhythmic flow.
The movie means well with what it tries saying about who these two people are to themselves and to each other. In wrapping their relationship around a monster movie, their bond ends up more burdened than bolstered by a threat distracting the drama. The film succeeds through the force of its actresses exploring their roles under Bryan Bertino’s direction. But “The Monster” misfires on the literal aspect of its title with deflated suspense that disappoints as a thriller.
Review Score: 60