Bryan Bertino’s The Monster is a story of a family at a painful crossroads. Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is an alcoholic, and her daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), is tired of weathering her instability and abuse. Lizzy often cruelly lashes out at her mother in retaliation, yearning for Kathy to rise to the challenge of parenting her, which Kathy internalizes in turn as rejection, which exacerbates said abuse and instability. At the beginning of the film, this cycle of miscommunication has reached a stalemate, blocking off this scattered yet fiercely protective woman and her intelligent and precocious child from one another—an association that Bertino literalizes in compositions of the pair in Kathy’s car, which are arranged so that mother and daughter exist in their own frames, the few inches between them seemingly stretched out into eternity.
Bertino, Kazan, and Ballentine are attuned to the minute fissures existing in a fraught relationship, such as a parent and child arrangement in which the former regards the latter inappropriately as a peer. Bertino structures The Monster in short and punchy stanzas that exist as emotional shards in Kathy and Lizzy’s recollections, briefly sidelining from the plot. There’s a heartbreaking moment where Kathy pulls over at a gas station and asks Lizzy to roll the window down, presenting her with her grandmother’s watch as a goodbye gesture. The lilt in Kazan’s voice as Kathy casually pronounces that Lizzy will never come back to her is extraordinary, acknowledging the thin line existing between bitterness and fragility. One can simultaneously sense Kathy attempting to push Lizzy’s independence back in her face, while offering a gesture of love, while succumbing to feelings of self-loathing and despair.
Kazan is a prodigiously transparent performer, and it’s almost as if one can look through her characters to see their emotional marrow. Another moment in this film, a flashback to an argument between Kathy and Lizzy over the latter’s school play, is devastating, as yet another intended gesture of support on Kathy’s part devolves into an incantatory chant of “fuck you” to her daughter. The profanity is delivered by Kazan with tensile subtlety, as an attack liquidly morphs into a plea for help and love. Again, it’s not so much what Kathy says, but how Kazan has her say it, her character’s voice quivering as Kathy attempts to project authority.
In The Strangers, Bertino exhibited a masterfully lush style that owed quite a bit to the elegant camera pirouettes of John Carpenter. In The Monster, the filmmaker utilizes his command of medium for more individualized purposes. By the time that The Monster reveals itself to be a horror film, we’re so engrossed in Kathy and Lizzy’s pain that the arrival of the titular menace strikes us as an authentic violation of normality, rather than as a ghoul arriving on demand per the dictates of the screenplay. The film has an eerily WTF arbitrariness that should be the domain of more films in the genre.
The creature is a metaphor for the baggage existing between the characters, of course, and for the necessity of Lizzy to move out from behind Kathy’s shadows, transcending her mother’s demons to become her own woman. But, until the end, Bertino doesn’t revel too much in subtext, allowing it to breathe without literalizing the freakiness. Intensifying matters is the monster itself, a terrifyingly irrational beastie that suggests a jet-black cross between a gargoyle and that galloping four-legged creature that possessed Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis’s characters in Ghostbusters.
The monster meshes with the hopeless dark silver skyscapes of the forest in which Kathy and Lizzy get themselves stuck. It opens its mouth to reveal immaculately white teeth, and it can stand like a humanoid, blending in with the shadows. As in The Strangers, Bertino encourages the viewer to play a game of scan-and-hunt, as one parses the frames nervously for signs that something’s off, such as shadows with weight and agency that might be looking to enter your realm and destroy it.