‘The Monster’: Film Review

Albert Camicioli/A24
Nothing’s more frightening than the threat of the unknown.

Zoe Kazan stars in Bryan Bertino’s third feature as a single mother navigating a deeply conflicted relationship with her young daughter, played by Ella Ballentine.

Deliberately skirting the Halloween horror corridor, Bryan Bertino’s tautly composed monster movie serves as a brutally effective metaphor for the turmoil of adolescence, with all of its rebelliousness and confusion. A fully realized depiction of elemental fear and desperation, The Monster’s modest scale should attract discerning genre fans while establishing a firm basis for potential cult status.

Adolescents frequently get labeled in unflattering terms as they attempt to navigate the sudden changes overtaking their bodies and minds, but at the same time it can’t be easy for a kid dealing with an alcoholic mother and a deliberately absent father. Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) manages as best she can trying to keep the peace with her divorced mom Kathy (Zoe Kazan), who’s struggling to raise her precocious daughter alone, held back by years of rage over her ex-husband’s abandonment and her own personal demons. Consumed by prodigious alcohol consumption, Kathy mostly leaves Lizzy to fend for herself. After enduring her mother’s endless tantrums and frequent binges, however, Lizzy has finally decided to put an end to all of the drama and move out of town to live with her dad (Scott Speedman).

Wrestling with mixed feelings and her own addictions, Kathy agrees to drive Lizzy several hours away to reunite with her father. A late start after Kathy sleeps off another bender puts them behind schedule, navigating rural highways well after dark with a storm approaching. On a rainy, dimly lit back road Kathy’s car collides with something and skids off the shoulder. Although they’re relatively unscathed, the car won’t start, so Kathy calls 911 for assistance, only to be told that an ambulance and tow truck will be delayed by the weather.

As they wait, the glowing headlights reveal an injured wolf lying inert in the roadway. Kathy and Lizzy get out of the car, concerned for the animal’s welfare, and discover that it was wounded in a ferocious attack even before getting hit in the accident. Sensing a malevolent threat in the nearby woods, Lizzie urges her mother back into the car, suspecting that something among the trees may be on the hunt. Huddling fearfully together, hoping that help will arrive soon, they gradually reach the realization that continuing to wait may actually be riskier than fleeing.

Bertino, whose work has attracted critical praise for films he’s both directed (The Strangers) and produced (Osgood Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter), here reduces primal fear to its fundamental elements. Trapped in their car on a dark road with danger lurking just beyond the headlights, mother and daughter must put aside their differences in order to survive. Their mutual hostility contrasts with some happier times depicted in flashback sequences, which also reveal the escalating animosity between the two as Lizzy grows older and more independent, rejecting her mother’s self-indulgent behavior and battling her own deep-seated fears.

Ballentine evinces a persuasive combination of concern and contempt, as Lizzy at first rejects Kathy’s infrequent maternal overtures before escalating threats force her to reassess her mother’s sometimes inscrutable intentions. Kazan’s intense performance brims with the rage of a woman whose addictions have forestalled her rightful role, even as she continues to maintain a fierce loyalty to her increasingly distant daughter.

Constructing an exterior set to serve as the deserted road and surrounding woods provides Bertino with the ability to carefully control camera movement and lighting, with an emphasis on character interaction and escalating panic. Shots of Lizzy and Kathy trapped in their disabled car are composed to emphasize their isolation and increasing desperation for help to arrive. Cinematographer Julie Kirkwood’s ominously prowling camera and sometimes deliberately murky lighting consistently amplify tension by obscuring the threat lurking just beyond the frame.

Distributor: A24
Production companies: Atlas Independent, Unbroken Pictures
Cast: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Aaron Douglas, Scott Speedman
Director-writer: Bryan Bertino
Producers: William Green, Aaron L. Ginsburg, Bryan Bertino, Adrienne Biddle
Executive producers: Richard Suckle, Sonny Mallhi, Charles Auty, Ted Cawrey, Vaishali Patel, Simon Williams
Director of photography: Julie Kirkwood
Production designer:  Shane Boucher
Costume designer: Jennifer Stroud
Editor: Maria Gonzales
Music: Tom Hajdu, Andy Milburn
Casting director: Ilona Smyth

Rated R, 91 minutes