The Monster (2016, dir. Bryan Bertino)
Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) is ready to leave her mother and go live with her father. After growing up in the shadow of her mom’s alcoholism, the young teenager has had to raise herself and try to keep her mother alive despite overdrinking and the threat of drunk driving. Kathy (Zoe Kazan), the girl’s mother, goes through an emotional rollercoaster, unable to communicate that she is actually heartbroken that her daughter is choosing to leave. As they drive through the night, taking an old road off the highway that leads them through the dark woods, Kathy swerves to avoid a wolf that has run out into the road. The car’s axle breaks and they skid to a stop, trapped and waiting for help in the form of an ambulance and tow truck that they are assured are on their way. But something is watching them from the woods. Something was hunting that wolf and drove it into the road. Something is waiting to devour these two women.
The Monster is a tough one. There are some interesting ideas, and the acting is incredibly strong. But as a horror film, I think it fails to create an atmosphere of fear. The set up is rife for some really unnerving horror set pieces, but the director doesn’t seem confident in the monster or sure of what to do. Director Bryan Bertino is the filmmaker behind 2008’s The Strangers. My opinion of that film was that it handled the ambiguous nature of its horror pretty damn well but didn’t do much to help me care about its two protagonists. The Monster appears focused on giving us that needed character development but then delivers sloppy horror.
There are moments where the horror begins to emerge from Kathy’s lack of parenting skills, putting her daughter in dangerous situations and being generally stupid in the face of horror. The film is peppered with flashbacks detailing the most recent decline of Kathy to the drink. We see her struggle mentally and physically in the backyard trying to decide if she digs through the trash for the bottles she’s thrown out. We see Lizzy hiding car keys to prevent drunk driving. We see the two devolve into a screaming match of profanities as the daughter does not want her drunk mother attending her school play. It’s pretty obvious what the director wants us to feel about these characters and the actors work their asses off, but the direction seems to undercut or hold back the deeper emotional impact.
The Monster is a movie about the horrors of addiction, but I would argue it fails to make those horrors feel truly horrific. Where The Strangers is confident in its pacing and the slow build up of horror, Bertino feels clumsy and unsure through almost every step of The Monster. There is a really great movie here, a premise that can connect us to the characters and a horror that is left unexplained. But when all the pieces are assembled, and we view the final project, it just doesn’t add up to much of anything really.