Speaking of superlatives, THE MONSTER features my new favourite Zoe Kazan performance. Despite choosing some great projects over the years (Ruby Sparks and The Big Sick, to name a few), I’ve always felt that Kazan was capable of more than her roles required. As such, it’s vindicating to see her thrive here as Kathy, a troubled woman whose struggles with alcoholism exacerbate her struggles to be a good mother. Through devastating flashbacks, we see that Kathy has been at her nadir for some time, and Bertino’s script wisely leaves the exact chronological order of these events ambiguous. For instance, while Kathy seems deeply flawed and intensely human when her failed attempts to quit drinking are shown, it’s revealed that these flaws lead to pent up anger and resentment, and even verbal and physical abuse towards her young daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). This complex blend of loathing for oneself and others is the most frightening monster looming over the film, and Kazan proves to be the perfect choice for conveying it.
Meanwhile, Ballentine is also exceptional as Lizzy, a role which allows her to subvert the expectations of a mother-daughter story by displaying maturity beyond her years. Indeed, in retrospect with the current Oscar buzz, and Kathy’s dyed red hair, it would be easy to dismiss the relationship at the centre of THE MONSTER as an inverted Lady Bird. However, the flashbacks mentioned above provide some fascinating and unexpected nuances to Lizzy’s feelings for her mother, ranging from pity to an unsettling reciprocation of Kathy’s resentment. It must be said that Kazan appears younger than her age, and both actresses use the subtext that Lizzy was an unexpected pregnancy for a young, unprepared mother to poignant effect. Although later scenes unfortunately diminish her required range to largely reacting, the role of Lizzy overall suggests that Ballentine has a promising career ahead of her even beyond horror, and I’ll be interested to see the types of projects she chooses in the future.
Nevertheless, THE MONSTER is emphatically a horror film, with the bulk of its runtime centred on its leads trapped in a forest with a mysterious beast. It’s a testament to Bertino’s direction that this simple setting is just as successful at engaging the viewer as the core relationship; I found that the almost pitch-black forest road setting and anxious, lingering shots made my mind race with suspense and speculation. This adherence to crafting atmosphere is too often neglected in modern horror, and it was refreshing for me to be given room to be curious as to what would happen next. Similarly, I had resigned myself to the likelihood that THE MONSTER would eventually feature a ‘twist’, forcibly removing ambiguities and ruining my theories. Yet in perhaps the film’s most subversive act, Bertino keeps things simple: there is indeed a monster in the forest, and that’s all we need to know.
As mentioned above, by instead choosing to elaborate on Kathy and Lizzy's characters, their relationship becomes far more integral and engrossing than viewers would likely have expected. Ultimately, THE MONSTER is an early contender for my favourite indie horror film of 2018. Its masterful execution of fundamental genre concepts will satisfy viewerslooking for tension and scares, while a surprisingly thoughtful examination of family should please anyone else with an open mind.
THE MONSTER IS AVAILABLE FOR PURCHASE AT EAGLE ENTERTAINMENT.