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The Monster Review: A Frustrating Misfire

By  · Published on November 21st, 2016

The Monster Is a Frustrating Misfire

On the bright side, Zoe Kazan gives a frighteningly good performance.

Writer/director Bryan Bertino’s feature debut, The Strangers, marked him as a talent to watch in 2008 (even with its similarities to the slightly superior French thriller Ils), but he’s been something of a ghost in the years since. He reappeared in 2014 with the underwhelming Mockingbird and now returns for round three with the Zoe Kazan-headlined The Monster.

He may want to consider another vacation.

Kathy (Kazan) and her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) have an aggressively dysfunctional relationship due in large part to Kathy’s drinking. She’s a bad person and a worse mother, and while she blames her ex-husband for their troubles the end result is the same with young Lizzy taking the brunt of her verbal abuse. Their latest row leads mother and daughter to take a road trip meant to deliver the girl to her father, but an accident on a deserted road leaves them at the mercy of the night.

Their car strikes a wolf, and a brief examination of its corpse reveals the large tooth of an even larger predator. What preys on a full-grown wolf? Something unnatural, and with their car disabled the creature now targets the pair as its next meal. Used to being at each other’s throats Kathy and Lizzy discover that all it takes to love each other again is the threat of a carnivorous monster salivating for their flesh.

Bertino fails to generate anything resembling scares or suspense here, and the fault rests almost entirely with his script. The smart setup would have kept viewers focused on the claustrophobic and hopeless solitude of the car on a lonely road, but instead we repeatedly cut away to flashbacks highlighting Lizzy’s constant berating from her angry, drunken mom. The scenes feel derivative from the start and quickly grow repetitive too.

Kathy’s existence as a relentlessly unappealing character doesn’t help matters as we spend the entire movie divided between hating her and shaking our collective heads at her stupidity. Unlikable characters typically have an appeal of their own, but Kathy feels too one-note in her behavior and motivation. Her eventual and expected shift into protective mother mode fails to convince – again, through script not performance – as the result is some truly moronic decisions. A late bit involving a fire is absolutely groan-worthy, and its intent as an emotional beat fails completely.

The character’s myriad faults don’t stop Kazan from delivering another impressive performance. She brings a convincing intensity to the role and threatens on at least one occasion to leave a mark on viewers. A sequence featuring a heartless back and forth between the two offers the film’s sole affecting moment.

As good as she and Ballentine are though we’re rarely given time to appreciate them before being hit with another unnecessary flashback or agonizingly inept character action. From hanging up on 911 to crashing a second vehicle – already excessive but distractingly so in an 80 minute film – mother and daughter are an uninspiring pair. The film’s few supporting characters fare no better including a pair of ambulance attendants whose nonsensical job transition to late-night dogcatchers in a downpour leaves you wishing for their painful demise.

The monster of the title – seemingly a reference to both the beast and Kathy’s own cruel behavior – is at least mildly effective. She’s every bit the threat to the girl’s safety, albeit in less carnivorous ways, while the creature itself draws power through hints of its reptilian nature amid the shadows. We’re eventually given too clear a view of the beast, but it’s not enough to completely shatter the illusion.

The Monster opens (and closes) with voice-over warning about the monsters you see and those you don’t, but the real horror here is the talent you see wasted and the thrills you don’t see at all.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.