Zoe Kazan has been a fixture of offbeat rom-coms for some time, scripting and starring in the delightfully quirky Ruby Sparks, and also appearing in What If, where she played opposite a looking-to-expand-his-range Daniel Radcliffe. While a talented actress (and granddaughter to filmmaker Elia Kazan), I wouldn’t want to see her burgeoning career devolve into a string of Kate Hudson roles.
Enter Bryan Bertino, whose last big impression on the horror genre was 2008’s The Strangers (2014’s Mockingbird flew – ahem – under many viewers’ radar). While flawed, that film nonetheless turned a profit and displayed considerable capacity for tension-building and directorial flair (sure, most of the foreground/background tricks were lifted directly from John Carpenter’s Halloween, but in my unpopular opinion, Bertino employed them to greater effect). With the promise of The Strangers under his belt, he should’ve been primed to make another impression on the genre, especially after a passage of 8 years.
Unfortunately, while The Monster gives Kazan a meaty, sometimes challenging role, it doesn’t offer much in the way of a comeback for Bertino.
Despite distribution by A24 (currently unleashing some of the edgiest indie fare upon audiences seeking freshness and innovation), The Monster is about as nondescript as its title.
Taking its primary inspiration from the last act of Cujo (mother and child isolated and trapped in a car, while something ominous prowls around outside), the film follows Kathy (Kazan), a deadbeat drunk of a mom, and Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), her too-wise, too-jaded daughter. Flashbacks hint at a relationship that could generously be called “rocky” (with verbal abuse, and a slap across the face for good measure). The present-day action follows the duo as Kathy transports Lizzy to her father’s house late one night; after a spinout on a rain-slicked back road, they find themselves miles away from help, and at the mercy of emergency personnel stuck in accident traffic on the major highway.
And that’s before the Giger-esque titular character makes its grand entrance.
To his credit, Bertino does a better job setting the scene here than he did in The Strangers – early scenes of Lizzy essentially playing the mother figure to the irresponsible Kathy (she’s seen cleaning up beer bottles and ashtrays from the night before) speak volumes for both characters, and a later flashback – of Lizzy putting a knife to her sleeping mother’s neck – is a moment more disquieting than any of the creature-feature stuff on display.
Unfortunately, The Monster never goes far enough in its themes and character arcs (Kathy’s a fuck-up who, through desperate circumstances, finally acknowledges her parental responsibility; Lizzy is forced into a survival scenario that augments her wise-beyond-her-years demeanor) to land with any real impact. Its best parts are pulled from The Shining, The Babadook, and the aforementioned Cujo, but the metaphorical qualities of “the other” don’t match the generically defined human conflicts, thus resulting in nothing more than an unsurprising B movie.
Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 2 out of 5