I knew 2 things about The Monster going into it. 1. It featured a monster of some sort. And 2. It had a bit of positive buzz on Twitter. I was eager to see it knowing that A24 was behind it (i guess that’s 3 things) because they put out some decent stuff. When it showed up streaming on Amazon Prime, I was pleasantly surprised. I watched it. And now you get to read about that experience! Lucky you.
10-year-old (est.) Lizzy is a great kid. She’s sweet. She’s caring. And she cleans up after her piece of shit mom, Kathy, after she and her transient boyfriend neglect her while they get shit-faced, drive drunk, and slap her around. You know, normal kid stuff. Today’s the day Lizzy is being handed off to her father for a visit (maybe permanently). She’s all packed. Packed mom’s stuff too. She’s cleaned up the house and emptied the ashtrays. She even vacuumed. And she does all of this before mom’s alarm goes off at 9AM (even though mom promised she’d get up at 8). Lizzy tries to rouse mom from her still-drunk stupor but is unsuccessful. So mom sleeps in ‘til 4:30. Lizzy’s consolation? Mom promises not to smoke in the car. (how sweet. until she breaks that promise.) the two head out and soon find themselves on a seldom used rural road surrounded by woods and a real-life monster. The monster is hungry for human meat (or maybe it’s just kill-crazy. it’s not really clear). Will Kathy mom up (phrase”mom up” copyright, jason dupuis, 2017) and protect her child? Will that make up for 10 years of neglect and abuse?
Let’s get the good stuff out there before I criticize. The Monster is an old school creature feature through and through. (in a good way) The location is secluded. The protagonists are cornered and desperate. The creature is a man in a rubber suit (also in a good way). And tertiary characters show up at regular intervals to serve as Monster fodder. All classic stuff. And all done very well here. Despite never experiencing a fight-for-your-life struggle with an otherworldly creature, the audience can relate. It’s basic fight-or-flight biology with the flight option hampered or removed. The dark, claustrophobic wooded setting is dreadful and perfect for this tale. Ella Ballentine is great as the smart little kid who’s been dealt a bad hand and Zoe Kazan is good as the immature, neglectful, and selfish parent. But that’s where I had a problem with The Monster. I am all for complex characters. We all (genre fans) know that we could use more of those. Especially in small budget independent films. But I’m not sure that alcoholic abuser is complex enough on its own. Sure, mom protects her daughter but her actions are basic human decency. That’s a pretty low bar to hurdle for her character’s redemption. And it’s not high enough for the audience to really care about her redemption or to see her as a truly complex woman. What we get in place of complexity, is shallow ‘bad mom’ flashbacks with bizarrely highlighted instances of Lizzy’s frustrations with and resentment toward her mom. As if those childish moments of lashing out or saying, “Fuck you!” to mom are meant to show us that both of these females have their faults. (i’m hoping you already know this but…) Children should not have to take care of their parents. It’s not endearing to see Lizzy cleaning up her mom’s puke and curling up with her on the bathroom floor. It’s tragic. And it’s not a counterpoint to see Lizzy hold a knife up to her passed-out mom’s throat while presumably fantasizing about killing her. That’s evidence of a childhood broken by an unstable and abusive guardian. And that Lizzy is the collateral damage of her mother’s alcoholism. The Monster frames these flashbacks in a way that seems to spread the blame. But that is a sorely misguided angle. This leaves us with a cool monster movie with a muddled emotional center.
The Final Cut: The Monster delivers old school rubber suit monster goods in a dreadful wooded setting, but fails to connect emotionally with it’s awkward attempt at a redemption story.