Eight years after the release of The Strangers, director Bryan Bertino shifts his focus from masked home invaders to a menacing creature in the woods. The Monster doesn’t quite live up to the expectations The Strangers set, but it’s still brimming with distinctive, commendable work that continues to prove that Bertino is a filmmaker capable of adding new, thoughtful layers to familiar situations.
Zoe Kazan leads as Kathy, a divorced mother taking her young daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) to her dad. Things are tense between the two courtesy of Kathy’s drinking problem, short fuse and her contentious relationship with Lizzy’s father, but their road trip soon takes an even darker turn when they become stranded on an isolated road deep in the woods, right where a bloodthirsty monster lurks.
Similar to The Strangers, The Monster benefits from keeping the focus on two characters and one location. Despite what the title might suggest, this isn’t a movie about the monster. It’s about Kathy and Lizzy’s relationship, and how their dynamic comes into play during their fight for survival. That means we don’t learn all that much about the monster. While some might grow frustrated with the lack of background information regarding where the creature came from, what it wants/needs, etc., the essence of this movie is the mother/daughter relationship, and there’s no doubt that dishing out answers about the monster would have done a major disservice to the characters and what makes the movie as a whole stand out.
Kazan and Ballentine make a downright fantastic pair. The Monster continues to let Kazan show off some serious range while also proving how well she can headline a film. One might expect a character like Kathy to be portrayed as a classic antihero of sorts – a good person who’s made some bad decisions – but Bertino doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that, at times, Kathy is a truly awful parent. She drinks excessively, isn’t there for Lizzy when she needs her, and often acts like a child herself. Kathy is a young mother and the movie highlights that in an extremely visceral and sometimes hard-to-watch manner. For instance, there’s one flashback of a yelling match between Kathy and Lizzy that’s both heartbreaking and disturbing, especially when Bertino reminds you how severely these arguments will shape Lizzy going forward.
The Monster is peppered with flashbacks offering backstory on how Kathy and Lizzy wind up in their current position. These scenes are at their best when they highlight the mother/daughter dynamic and resonate in a way that challenges you to consider how that past behavior will affect them during their present predicament. Not all of them work that well – like one that introduces Scott Speedman as Lizzy’s father for a matter of seconds, something that only would have been worthwhile if he was featured in more of the film – but for the most part, the balance between flashbacks and current material do offer just enough character detail to keep you fully invested in Kathy and Lizzy’s fight for survival.
Thankfully the powerful performances and all-consuming atmosphere are enough to hold your attention because The Monster is a bit on the slow side, but appropriately so. The movie doesn’t just show you the most eventful moments from their night stranded in the middle of nowhere. Bertino lets sequences breathe, building a good deal of suspense and tension, and also giving the movie a more grounded, realistic feeling – or at least as “realistic” as one might imagine. It’s a unique and commendable approach to this type of film, but at the same time, there’s no denying that Bertino could have ramped things up a little as far as pacing goes.
As for the monster itself, Bertino and his team deserve credit for creating a menacing and terrifying practical beast, but for as good as the monster looks in most scenes, there are occasions when it catches a little too much light for its own good, revealing a rubbery quality to the design. And even though the movie benefits from the simplicity of the narrative, a few more facts about the nature of the creature likely would have enhanced the experience, perhaps even leaving you with more to think about after it wraps up, something that the movie desperately needs. Bertino almost pulls off a meaningful ending for his characters, but there’s one particular plot point towards the tail end of the film that seriously detracts from their journey and nearly completely derails Kathy as a character.
Overall, The Monster is a chilling movie that showcases two fantastic performances and the work of a filmmaker who’s willing to take some risks and makes it a priority to truly envelop the viewer in a nightmarish situation. It’s an engaging and worthy watch that teases great potential in everyone involved.
The Monster will be available on DirecTV on October 6th, and will be in theaters and On Demand on November 11th.