There is an adage, that if you must steal, steal from the best, and the opening lines of writer/director Bryan Bertino’s The Monster, repeated in the closing moments, certainly seem to borrow heavily from work of James Cameron, a child’s voice whispering “My mom tells me there’s no such thing as monsters, but she is wrong.”
It starts with the sullen road trip from hell for mother and daughter Kathy and Lizzy, the long trek to drop Lizzy off at her father’s; old beyond her years from taking care of her heavy drinking mother who was only a teen herself when she had her, Lizzy clutches her teddy bear as the only concession to a childhood she never had.
Kathy has no authority over her daughter and Lizzy has no respect for her, knowing from an early age that her mother would let her down, asking her not to attend her school play for fear she will embarrass her, leading to a furious argument between the two. Kathy simply doesn’t know how to love her headstrong daughter, but she does: she fears that when she drops her off, that will be the end of it, that she won’t be coming back, and it breaks her, but she is too tough to show it.
The battle lines having been drawn early in their relationship, as the hours draw late and the rain pounds down on the country roads neither will give any ground, but in a flash it changes, an animal in the headlights, the car in the ditch, Kathy bleeding from a head wound and near panic, her fear for her daughter’s safety outweighing every harsh word which has passed between them.
They call for help, a tow truck and an ambulance, and sit shaken in the car, the body of the wolf lying in the road ahead of them. They go to check that it is dead, but the wounds are not from the impact but something else, an enormous tooth left in the tears in its flesh. There is something else in the woods, in the dark, and all they can do is wait for rescue.
Considering Bertino debut’s The Strangers was an exercise in worthless nastiness, The Monster is a considerable step up and serves as a showcase for the considerable talents of both Zoe Kazan and Ella Ballentine who are excellent throughout and it often seems like there is less than eighteen years between the their ages, but it is a film of two distinct halves only one of which is very good, and at almost exactly the forty five minute mark as the presence of the external threat is made apparent it becomes repetitive, the wheels spinning in the mud without generating momentum.
With a supporting role for Battlestar Galactica‘s Aaron Douglas as repair man Jesse and a one scene cameo from Bertino’s former leading man on The Strangers Scott Speedman as Kathy’s short-tempered boyfriend Roy, the film depends wholly on the performances of the two women in their complex relationship and the dread of the dark, the unseen, an exercise in transparent claustrophobia as trapped in the car they are forced to witness everything but cannot escape.
The creature wisely kept largely in the shadows, it’s nature or origin is never once considered by the characters, sidestepping any awkward question of why for narrative necessity it hunts by sound rather than scent, and while for the most part the film avoids moments of egregious stupidity – the means by which the characters are separated from their cellphone does not feel contrived simply to achieve that end – that only makes the preposterously flammable finale all the more of an infuriating disappointment.