A Monster Calls
Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones
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A young boy coping with his mother’s terminal illness finds refuge in imagination in J.A. Bayona’s downbeat fairy tale.
“How does the story begin?” Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) asks the titular Monster (Liam Neeson) in the opening of J. A. Bayona’s follow-up to his 2012 critical darling, The Impossible. “It begins as most do, with a boy too old to be a kid and too young to be a man,” the monster replies, and Conor’s circumstances seem so familiar to this kind of story. He is reclusive, prone to daydreaming, bullied relentlessly, and lives with his single mother (Felicity Jones) except, in addition to this, his mother is terminally ill and one night at 12:07 a monster calls.
There is a great yew tree on a nearby hill in the local graveyard. Conor witnesses the tree come to life one night and take the form of a mammoth monster, reminiscent of those from early 20th century Hollywood films such as King Kong; the misunderstood beast. The tree smashes through his window, steals him into the night, and tells him he will tell Conor three stories and then Conor will tell him the fourth and that fourth story will be Conor’s truth. But then Conor wakes up. His room is intact and any sign of the monster has vanished.
Conor goes about his life, receiving his daily torture from the school bully and generally lashing out as his mother’s condition worsens, but eventually the monster returns and tells the first story. Full credit should be given to the art team behind these magical sequences, as they are exactly what you would assume the bubbling imagination of a kid like Conor would conjure, full of intense colours and a dreamlike smoothness where one moment bleeds into the next. But the stories themselves are not what they seem.
Each story changes the black and white nature of old fairy tales for something more emotionally didactic and complex. “So, who’s the bad guy?” Conor asks the monster. “Sometimes, no one is the bad guy.” These tales act as a kind of koan for Conor, where it is not about finding an answer that is key, but understanding that the question itself elicits difficult interpretations. This introspection will come to inform Conor’s own struggles.
In these moments, the film strides confidently, self-assured in its complexity. But there are other moments where it stumbles. For a film that trades in the notion that nothing is black and white, the bully who terrorises Conor irks. He is at no point redeeming, makes fun of Conor’s dying mother, and is revealed as an all-out psychopath when he decides to no longer beat Conor, because that way Conor will become invisible, on par with death during those emotionally sensitive teenage years. He is waging psychological warfare that would leave even Freud blushing. In this story, it seems, the bully is indeed the bad guy.
Another moment that works, in and of itself, but highlights some issues with the rest of the film comes when Conor’s absent father is introduced and the levity he brings with a few tender moments of humour highlights how emotionally stark the rest of the film really is. This is a heavy film for a kids’ movie. More moments like this could have done the film wonders.
The resolution to Conor’s inner turmoil is itself satisfying and as complex as one could hope, especially for a kids’ movie. But, somehow, it all feels cheapened by the way the film trades in easy emotional triggers. Of course, we will feel bad for a kid with no friends. Of course, we will feel bad for a kid whose dad does not want him. Of course, we will feel bad for a kid who is beaten on a daily basis. Of course, we will feel bad for a kid whose mother is dying. And so on. However, these elements are woven into the very D.N.A. of A Monster Calls. It seems no matter how deftly J. A. Bayona ties this all together, and he does so with flair and grace, it was always going to feel cheapened by the very black and white tropes it warns its protagonist to avoid.