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Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) is an unhappy child in a divorced family, living with her mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan), a young women who looks barely old enough to drive. The two are not close, struggling to find any ground they can share together. They are bitter and angry and yet seem bound to each other. But it’s impossible to stay as they are.
On a drive to Lizzy’s father’s house, they take a detour and end up on a dark, rainy road where they get a flat tire and violently spin out of control. They then accidentally hit a wolf as Kathy tries to keep the car on the road. Slightly injured and their car un-drivable, they call for help and wait.
Time passes and eventually they get out and look at the dead wolf that appears to have far more damage to its body than just the impact of the car. They discover something embedded in the corpse, and sure enough, it’s not long after when they realize there is something else in the woods, big and terrifying, and wanting to feed. And it’s coming.
Written and directed by Bryan Bertino, The Monster is by definition a monster in the dark movie, a standard something-in-the-shadows creature feature that hits all the expected triggers, but claw just under the surface and there is much more than what first appears. Drawing comparisons to the superior The Babadook (2014), what that monster is and why it attacks as it does, has more to do with what divides these characters than them simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The relationship between Kathy and Lizzie is a fractured one, presented from its start as combative. As the story progresses, we learn in a series of dark flashbacks that Kathy is struggling with alcohol and depression and this is the source of what pulls Lizzie close but more so what repels her with incendiary toxicity. They have ferocious arguments, and we see a moment where Lizzie holds power to commit something terrible but doesn’t. But we also see is that she also loves her mother, coming to her side at another desperate time in a troubling, vulnerable moment.
But it isn’t just her mother that has damaged Lizzie so. Her father, while living at home is also reckless, he and Kathy a corrosive, abusive pair who have made home for their daughter a dungeon of fear and anger, most especially as she works to try and stop their behavior. Bertino subtlety makes it clear that the title of his film is not necessarily what we think, and that to understand why this mother and daughter are as trapped as they have become has nothing to do with car trouble.
All of this has value, narratively of course, for when the women are caught as they are, it is the deeper, embedded strength of familial love that tie this mother and daughter together when they most need. And assuredly, they most need. Bertino wisely keeps his monster hidden for just long enough, perhaps teasing it a bit too much, but it existing as a spectre in our imaginations, nurtured by guttural growls and breaking twigs, helps keep it a terror far before we see it.
The suffering these two characters endure are important and it is made impactful by two very good performances, especially in the earlier and flashback scenes. Ballentine has great presence as the daughter, offering more than the typical angsty type. Lizzie is a stunted girl, too old for childish things yet embraces them in desperation, longing to return to a time when she didn’t know what she knows. Kazan is even better, capturing the weight and despair of failure, wanting to bridge the gap to anything outside her life, but seeing it only as a chasm. When she offers Lizzie a gift that has great meaning to her, her shattered voice is heartbreaking, as is another time when she clearly put everything she could into trying to seem like a normal mom and take her daughter to the school play, only to have that descend into a driveway shouting match with no other words but the ones that hurt the most.
There are some issues with pacing and unnecessary bookending narration, a few odd edits and a penultimate moment that doesn’t have the impact it should, but what The Monster accomplishes far outweighs these minor moments. Bertino creates a terrifying film that does something so few in the genre do well, give characters value and connect them to the monster that hunts them.
Director: Bryan Bertino
Writer: Bryan Bertino
Stars: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Scott Speedman, Aaron Douglas