the_monster_2Year: 2016
Director(s): Bryan Bertino
Writer(s): Bryan Bertino
Region of Origin: US

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: R
Color, 91 mins

Synopsis: A mother and daughter must confront a terrifying monster when they break down on a deserted road. (Source)

The Monster is scary even without its title character. Though Bryan Bertino’s latest film is satisfying as a CGI-free creature feature, its terror comes from a much more relatable fear – that of feeling helpless and totally unable to protect the one you love. Emotionally raw and straight to the point, the film has a minimalist plot that explores the unsaid bond between a mother and her child. In tackling a horror that’s all too real, the story amplifies maternal instinct and pre-adolescent fear to its most deafening, including two killer performances from Zoe Kazan and Ella Ballentine which are utterly wrenching. You can come for the titular character and be satisfied, but it’s the film’s piercing emotion that steals the show.

Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) and her mother, Kathy (Zoe Kazan), are at the breaking point. Kathy is a wreck, and Lizzy, despite her young age is the real adult of the relationship. There’s already a lot of tension between the two, and as Kathy takes Lizzy on a road trip to deliver her to her father, there’s an unsaid understanding that this may be the last time they see each other. Using an old backroad in the middle of a stormy night, Kathy suddenly hits a wolf that appears out of nowhere, causing her to lose control of the car. They crash and are instantly stranded. Still, they’re able to make an emergency call despite being injured and stranded in the dark. As Lizzy and Kathy wait for help, something inhuman lurks in the surrounding woods, waiting for the right moment to make its move.

Bertino’s biggest asset is how he’s able to do so much with so little. The film’s plot is very simple, but elevated by the metaphor at the center of its story. In turn, the bulk of the action occurs in the car or the road around Lizzy and Kathy’s accident, punctuated by flashbacks which show the traumatic relationship between the two. It’s a bleak film all around, with the duo’s domestic life rife with verbal abuse and repressed angst, while their present situation, is a violent, physical fight for survival. The metaphor is obvious, with the monster embodying the pair’s broken relationship, and finally allowing them to confront how they feel about each other. There’s something primal about the film being so straightforward, yet effective, giving its very classic story a timeless, emotional hook. Ultimately, the film is a celebration of the dysfunctional bond between mother and daughter, showing how, even behind the pain and anger, there’s an understanding of love and care that can never be taken away.

the_monster_1Though Lizzy and Kathy’s relationship is the heart of the film, the creature action is worth noting as well. Created without CGI and crafted by legends, Tom Woodruff, Jr and Alec Gillis (Alien, Starship Troopers, Terminator), the monster is a classic boogeyman with real bite. I mean, literally, the monster is a slimy, grotesque, almost humanoid creation with a sharp maw that looks incredible. We really don’t get monsters like this anymore, and its practical nature is one that really sells the film’s realism. There’s something to be said about how Bertino embraces the limitations of his old school technique, slowly revealing the creature throughout, and showcasing it in a way that doesn’t take away its mystery. There’s no explanation given to how or why it exists, it just is, and there’s a freedom to that.

Honestly though, if you watch this for one thing, it’s gotta be the performances from the two leads. Ella Ballentine and Zoe Kazan carry the entire film on their backs, and in the hands of lesser actors, none of this would’ve worked. As Lizzy, Ballentine is fierce right from the start. She’s the headstrong personality of the two, making up for her mother’s inability to cope with reality, and forcing her into shape with an abrasive personality. She’s not at all the child archetype we see in every single horror film, but the grown up of the film – there’s nuance in her performance through and through, with her anger always revealing a deep pain. As Kathy, Kazan shines. She proves again here, that she’s one of Hollywood’s most underrated talents, turning her burnout mother of a character into a nuanced woman crippled by her perceived inadequacy. She’s plays Kathy as someone locked in a self-destructive cycle of regret, transforming throughout to reclaim her strength and find something within that she that was no longer there. Bottom line, Ballentine and Zoe are heartbreaking together, with a chemistry that easily pulls us into their despair.

The Monster isn’t doing anything new, but it doesn’t have to. It’s one of the few horror films that sticks to tradition, but thrives because it has a deeper understanding of the symbolism and fear at its core. While it isn’t perfect, it’s a film that really illustrates how monsters come in all shapes in sizes, and that the most vicious ones are sometimes those that don’t occupy physical form.