A Monster Calls (2016)
PG-13 for stuff involving grief and sadness. Like, the movie is a huge bummer, so little kids probably shouldn't be watching it. I know I worded that like a child, but it is as blunt as I can probably get. Conor has a horrible life. He is bullied and his mom is dying. The movie really plays up how ugly cancer can get. There's also a lot of anger stuff and there are these stories that end up getting kind of violent. Also, there's a monster. It's weird how the monster is the least disturbing thing about the whole movie, but it is true.
DIRECTOR: J.A. Bayona
What is with me and dead parent movies? Is everyone watching all these dead parent movies? Like, I get it. Maybe it is that thing --I forget the proper term for it --where once you buy a red Honda Accord, you only see red Honda Accords? I don't know. But I seem to be writing about dead parents a lot and how close to life these movies tend to get. I'm also clearly hitting my stride with my 2016 Netflix DVD account because I keep posting about all the movies I missed that year.
Patrick Ness is hanging out somewhere outside of my bubble. I see his name on a lot of the things I watch. The film of A Monster Calls is an adaptation of his novel, so I can't give too much or too little credit to the source material, not having have read it. But when I see his name, I always get a "B-" reaction to his stuff. It's always good enough to keep going with it, but there always will be something unfinished or loose about the final product. Again, Mr. Ness, if you are reading this, I apologize. I haven't written anything of note and probably should have my laptop taken away so I can stop being a jerk about things that are noteworthy. On top of that, I'm one guy being ho-hum about a movie that most audiences really loved. For me, ho-hum. I think that "B-" thing is dead on accurate. I enjoyed it and I found it to be a beautiful movie, but like a lot of stuff that I see Patrick Ness's name on, the conceit doesn't really follow through the entire thing.
See, the movie hinges on the concept that the monster is telling Conor three stories. Those three stories will inspire Conor to tell the fourth story, which is a secret that he has even hidden from himself. From an audience's perspective, this must mean that these three stories are integral to that fourth story, that will serve as the climax of the film. Instead, the three stories are more thematic than they are revelatory. All three stories are about how the protagonist is both a hero and the villain, but that is all a matter of perspective. While I adore the theme of it all, really one story could have done it. Instead, what we get is a serious problem with repetition. Also, once you see what the theme is, some of these choices told by the monster seem intentionally misleading. We're supposed to come to the same conclusions that Conor eventually comes to at the same time that Conor comes to these conclusions. It doesn't quite play out like that. There were moments where I was thinking, "Who would word things like that?" The monster is intentionally cryptic for the sake of teaching a lesson. But some of those lessons are really muddied. I don't know. I thought that these stories were going to be life changing. For example, the first story about the prince and the witch. The Monster says something like, "And rumors throughout the land said that the Witch murdered her husband." Instantly, realizing the point of the story, thought, "Oh, but those were just rumors and it was a misunderstanding." But then the Monster goes on and says that the prince and the maiden had run off together in the night. When the prince awoke, he found his love dead." The big twist is that the prince had murdered the maiden...
Which means that the maiden wasn't his love and that he didn't "find" her dead. There is misleading and then there is straight up confusing. The story was told from the prince's perspective. We knew what he knew. So to say that it wasn't true what we knew, what is the point in that? That seems more like a lie than crafty storytelling. I like the final result. I like the idea that characters aren't all good or all bad. But the story kind of ends with the prince as the villain and the witch as the hero. Similarly, there are really gross moments that the Monster never really elaborates on. The witch ends up being far more sympathetic by the end of that story, but it never really explains her lust for power. She offers to marry her own stepson to share power, which makes her, again, unsympathetic. While she probably doesn't deserve to die, I don't know how much of a victim she was in this story.
But this brings me to the fact that I overall liked the movie. Why? Because I kind of like the message. There's nothing normal or expected about grief. While the hole in the ground swallowing up family members was a bit much and I kind of got it, the idea that we think some very ugly things to deal with trauma is kind of normal. It's the way that Conor acts that really matters. So even though those three stories were a bit "Okay, I get it", the revelation that Conor kind of wants his mom to die so that he can go on with his life is actually kind of a gutsy statement to make. And it never presents it as a concept that Conor is selfish. But it is an emotion that exists. Similarly, the fact that his entire life is dictated by the shame that a feeling brings about is kind of interesting to examine. Now, this can get into some dicey territory. It really is a dark feeling to look at. After all, I could easily see this quickly evolving into a discussion about euthanasia. But that's not what Conor is really experiencing. He's just tired of hope. The entire film, he keeps getting mixed messages. The world is telling him that his mom is going to die and his mom says that she's going to live. I know that feeling exactly. It's something that I still deal with to this very day. But there is something very satisfying about having a clear answer. We act differently when options are removed from us. We start dealing with things and prepping ourselves. Would Conor always be sad when his mom died? Sure. It's just that he probably would have approached that death in healthy ways with a support system instead of being the only one who believed that his mom could be saved. That's too much to put on one's person's shoulders. Heck, Conor is borderline a hero because he buries his wish for the sake of his mother. After all, so much about the movie and its themes are about belief and the importance of belief, I don't see how he couldn't be confused about what his role in the grand scheme was.
I have a lot of little thoughts about the movie that might not justify having their own paragraphs. I apologize that this section is going to be a disorganized mess, but that's what might happen in the world of daily blogging. I love Sigourney Weaver, but why make her British? There are so many good actresses that could have filled this role. Was it an attempt to market the movie to Americans to get them to see it? She's fine, I guess. But her voice is so well know that it had the same effect the first Doctor Strange movie did. Some people are allowed to pull that off. Sigourney Weaver probably isn't. The other thing is that I don't actually know what the purpose of the belief in the monster is. There's this loose connection to the fact that the mother and the son both drew a very similar monster when they were children dealing with their problems. But is it a problem acknowledging that it is okay that the monster was never real? There's a need to present this as a possibly supernatural creature and I think that is a misstep. Why can't the monster be only real to Conor and that be enough? The movie is so grounded in reality that adding this larger than life thing seems like it is only detracting from the overall story. I don't need to know that the world is ancient and has odd things in it. I need to know that Conor's personal monster is forcing him to deal with the problems in his life. Does there need to be a connection with the Monster and his mom? Probably not.
But the movie mostly works. I know that's not exactly a glowing review. But it does the job. I can see why people lost their minds with this one, but it didn't quite do it for me. It's a fine movie that tells a sad story. But sometimes, I want more than a sad story. I want every piece to fit nicely.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.