The Monster follows young teen Lizzy (Ella Ballentine), who has a strained relationship with her alcoholic mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan). The movie starts with a scene of Lizzy cleaning up after her mother, and then trying to wake her up so that she can drive her to her father’s place. But Kathy doesn’t get up, and the two end up driving late into the night. While on a forest road, they crash into a wolf and their car breaks down. While waiting for help to come, they discover that there’s something in the forest much more dangerous than a wolf.The film is playing at interesting themes, its talk of monsters early on obviously directed more at humans than at any supernatural entity. The relationship that the film establishes between Lizzy and her mother is so toxic that it seems unlikely that any shambling creature could do any more damage. Like all the best horror movies, The Monster wants to use its threat as a greater metaphor for more grounded human struggle. But by the end of the film, it isn’t quite clear what the metaphor is supposed to be. It’s an intriguing project all in all, but the writing doesn’t quite keep up with its larger ambitions.The film does a great job building up to the inevitable reveal of the creature. The difficulties between Lizzy and Kathy provide compelling context to the external conflicts yet to come. The undeniable fact that Kathy is a bad mother serves as simple justification for some of the bad choices that she later makes. And Lizzy’s general resentment drives her to make rash decisions that will later make things a little more complicated. But the film falters once the creature actually makes it on screen. The film doesn’t really seem to know what to do after the reveal, the action slowing to a crawl as the film tries to stretch itself out to a feature length runtime.The back half is where the film’s themes get a little murky. It doesn’t even really feel like the film knows exactly what it wants its monster to stand for. If the film had just started out as a typical creature feature, this might have been a little easier to swallow. But the film keeps moving as though there’s still some profound statement being made through the application of gore. In support of this, the film occasionally flashes back to the past, filling out the character backstory. If the metaphor were clearer, these cutaways might have added something to the movie. But with the film’s failings, they mainly end up as distractions, taking the audience away from the tension of the danger at hand.The monster does look good, though. It’s a throwback creation that has a real physical presence. When it shows up, you do feel like something terrible is about to happen. And the film manages to build its tension within a very limited scope, practically the whole thing taking place on one stretch of road, with only the occasional burst of light illuminating the scenery. And though her character is underwritten, Zoe Kazan just throws everything she has at this role. There is a haunted quality to her performance that goes deeper than what the script lays out for her. Ella Ballentine feeds off Kazan and delivers a fairly memorable performance as well.The Monster still ends up being a little more interesting than the typical horror movie we seem to get every week. Fans bored bythe standard rhythms of the jump scare horror film might at least enjoy the change of pace presented by this film. If it doesn’t quite achieve its grander ambitions, it could at least be said that this film had grander ambitions at all. And that’s worth something. Combined with the generally solid production values and the fine lead acting, the film feels like a positive as a whole.
THE MONSTER IS NOW SHOWING IN SELECTED CINEMAS NATIONWIDE.