Written and directed by Bryan Bertino of The Strangers fame, The Monster is sure to be one of the more polarizing films horror fans see this year. On its surface, even in its title, The Monster presents itself as something it really isn't, and what the film really is, is sure to drive a wedge between the crowd of folks who dig it and those who don't.
Kathy (Zoe Kazan) may be the worst mother imaginable. A single mom with a crippling addiction to alcohol, Kathys days revolve around minimizing her daughter Lizzys impact on her nights, which are alcohol fueled benders often leaving her abusive by night and incapacitated by the morning. Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) acts far too old for her young age, having been forced to grow up by the tragic die she's been cast into. She spends her mornings cleaning up after her mother, her nights desperately trying to hide the car keys to prevent her mother from driving drunk and the hours in between trying to preserve some sort of a sense of normalcy.
Lizzy is all set for a road trip to go and see her father. Kathy, fresh off an all night drunk oversleeps, adding even more tension to their already tragically broken relationship. When they finally get underway, Kathy confesses to Lizzy she knows that Lizzy won't be coming home with her. She knows in her heart that Lizzy will elect to stay with her father, and this trip is their last hurrah as mother and daughter. And despite her hollow objections, Lizzy knows that, for once, her mother is right. Then an injured wolf wanders onto a rain swept back road and Kathy loses control of the car. The resulting accident leaves the vehicle incapacitated and its passengers stranded sitting ducks for something sinister that haunts the woods.
What Bertino crafts with The Monster is one of the most challenging horror films you are bound to see this year, or any year frankly. Not only does it show the real emotional effects of what being a child of an alcoholic parent are (I know from experience - it's scary how well he hits those notes), he challenges you to find some sort of redemptive quality in Kathy. It's a leap that some film folks just won't be able to make, despite Zoe Kazans great performance as Kathy.
Even more challenging for the typical horror film goer will be the films structure. Bertino could have stuck with film making 101 and told a linear story about a shitty mother and her daughter attacked in their car by a mysterious beast. Instead, he chooses to break up the narrative, interspersing flashbacks from both Kathy and Lizzys perspective. while this does break the momentum of the monster story, making it feel secondary to the persona journeys of the main characters, what it really does is keep reminding everyone what a shit head Kathy is. Every time we begin to see growth between Kathy and Lizzy, Bertino throws in a flashback and our opinions of Kathy are again knocked in the dirt. It's a bold choice and one that less confident film makers would be too scared to make.
It's also a choice that's going to frustrate a lot of the hardcore horror fans out there and for the most part, their frustrations are justified. The flashbacks and melodrama do impede the films third act from reaching the apex of its potential. While the "monster movie" doesn't quite get relegated to the "b story" of the film, the breaks in that part of the stories momentum certainly do nothing to help it.
In the end, The Monster is a powerful film. It's one of the most effective films I've seen in a long time. It's also one of the bleakest films I've seen in a long time. If you are dialing up The Monster looking for that feel good ending, then you are going to severely disappointed. You will also be disappointed if you are looking for a balls to the wall Cujo-esque third act. The Monster just can't deliver in that department. What it does deliver on in spades it heartbreaking relationship based story telling wrapped in a horrific man vs. the unknown story telling that may force you to confront the monster that lives in all of us. Zoe Kazan gives one of the best performances of a fundamentally flawed character in recent memory. Check out The Monster strictly for the humanity she injects into a character that could have easily become a caricature.
**** stars out of *****
The Monster is currently available to rent on Amazon and as part of Amazon Primes free streaming service. That's it for me. As always, thanks or reading and "enjoy every sandwich."