Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 17, 2017)
If a filmmaker affixes a title as generic as The Monster to his or her work, the movie needs to be special enough to overcome the blandness of its moniker. Will 2016’s The Monster deliver an experience exciting enough to make me forget its dull name? Read on and see!
Alcoholic single mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan) largely leaves young daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) to fend for herself. This makes the girl hardened and jaded beyond her years, as she finds herself forced to deal with the messes her irresponsible mother creates.
Kathy and Lizzy head out to take the girl to her father’s house because it’s his turn for custody. This trip comes with unforeseen events, as an accident strands them in an unpopulated area and confronted with terror that traps them in their car.
In a cinematic universe where most horror films consist of little more than cheap jolts and telegraphed terror, it becomes tempting to laud efforts that opt for subtlety. Anything that avoids the standard tropes seems fresh and rich by comparison.
Which may leave us with the tendency to overpraise a flick like Monster, one that builds at a slow pace and attempts more dramatic subtext than most in the genre. In particular, the movie indulges in flashbacks that show us the problems involved in the Kathy/Lizzy relationship.
These choices allow the film to shoot for character depth, but Monster doesn’t really succeed. The views of the past offer context that the movie fails to require, and they shove the tale toward metaphor that just doesn’t work.
Honestly, Monster would be more effective if it shed its pretensions and simply tried to be a basic horror flick. I like the fact that the movie starts slowly, especially because it doesn’t telegraph its intentions.
For much of its first act, Monster progresses like an interpersonal drama about mother and daughter. If you watched it cold, you’d have no idea that it would eventually involve a violent creature that attacks many victims, and I think that that “slow burn” suits it.
However, the movie’s attempts at metaphorical relevance let it down as it goes. These stabs don’t fit the rest of the tale and they require certain leaps of logic that don't work. The subtext feels like forced attempts at meaning that drag down the story.
Which seems like a shame, as Monster presents a perfectly decent horror tale otherwise. Nothing about its basic creature-related terror innovates, but the film builds a good sense of tension and comes with reasonable excitement at its core.
Monster also boasts strong performances from its two leads – especially Ballentine, who proves nearly revelatory. She manages the hard edge necessary for the character but also manages to show Lizzy’s little girl side, all while she attempts to deal with unimaginable terror. Ballentine grounds the film and makes it much better than it could have been.
But Monster remains too inconsistent to become truly satisfying. In some ways, I admire the film’s ambition but I think it strives to be something it’s not, and that leaves the end result as a mixed bag. It’s a mostly interesting film but not a great one.