We’ve told you before, and I’ll tell you again — it’s time to get familiar with A24. This distributor of smaller films is a leader in contemporary cinema. When 2016’s blockbusters disappointed, A24 brought us movies like Green Room, Swiss Army Man, Moonlight, and Krisha. The Witch was A24’s first real foray into horror, but many audiences found it a little too unconventional for their tastes. The Monster, on the other hand, is much more approachable.
The Monster stars Zoe Kazan as Kathy: a young alcoholic mother of a preteen daughter named Lizzy. When mother and daughter take a road trip, their car breaks down on a remote highway. The woods loom all around. The endless rain pelts the roof of the car. And a monster lurks in the night. It’s a bare-bones premise, even by monster movie standards. But unlike your average creature feature, this film wants you to get to know these characters before it puts them through the ringer.
Writer and director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) shows a surprising interest in Kathy and Lizzy’s relationship. Most movies would be content to chuck them in the car in the opening scene and put the rest on fast forward. But Bertino takes his time, laying a solid foundation upon which to build his monster movie. Even after the creature shows up, Bertino isn’t shy about breaking the forward momentum of that conflict to show us an important character beat from Kathy and Lizzy’s past.
And the dynamic between mother and daughter is what shoulders the weight of this movie. Ella Ballentine performs admirably as the sullen Lizzy, but Zoe Kazan is the reason to see The Monster. Kathy is a wreck, but Kazan imbues the character with humor and humanity. Not every dramatic moment between Kathy and her daughter works in earnest — the bigger their drama gets, the more it strains credibility. But the little interactions between them will break your heart, like when Kathy remembers to ask Lizzy’s permission to smoke a cigarette in the car.
But when the monster shows up, it becomes apparent that this film is much better directed than it was written. Bertino showed us in The Strangers that he knows how to shoot and stage moments to curdle your blood. He’s still got the touch in this latest film. Much of the time we spend in the car with our leading duo expertly recalls Jurassic Park‘s lead-up to the T-rex attack. But as Bertino expertly coils suspense, the movie betrays the characters it took so much care to establish. When the timid Lizzy leaves the car to follow a trail of blood into the dark woods, the cracks widen.
For every powerful moment, the movie has a clunker waiting. And the biggest clunker, regrettably, is the monster itself. That’s a cardinal sin for a monster movie — the monster has to be, in many ways, the star. Horror fans will be happy to know that the beast is a guy in a rubber monster suit. You just can’t beat having the thing on set, and monster makers ADI (the Alien series) know that. But when the movie doesn’t even have a solid close-up of the creature, that’s a problem.
And while a monster might seem like a simple thing on paper, we can’t forget that it’s a character. It has to have motivations and some sort of internal logic. But here, the monster is whatever the scene needs it to be. It’s an unworthy adversary for such well-developed heroes. Zoe Kazan’s grade-A acting in the film defies genre expectations. She gives us a deeply flawed protagonist we can genuinely care about. But defying expectations isn’t always a good thing. When the movie’s premise depends on a great monster and the film can’t deliver, it’s defying the audience’s expectations. And these days, I don’t think it is misguided to expect a movie called The Monster to deliver on the promise of its title.