“The Monster,” directed by Bryan Bertino (“The Strangers”), is the odd, intense story of a mother and daughter who are attacked by a supernatural creature after their car stalls on a forest road at night. Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is a young and arguably unfit mother; at first, her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballantine) seems weirdly antagonistic towards her, but unsympathetic flashbacks reveal Kathy to be an alcoholic who is neglectful, verbally abusive and sometimes even violent. She is remorseful, however, on this trip to bring Lizzy to visit her dad, because she suspects that Lizzy won’t come back.
In a rainstorm, Kathy swerves to avoid something in the road, wrecking the car. The obstruction turns out to be a dead wolf that was clearly already attacked by something else – something that left behind a huge tooth in its pelt. The two wait in the car for their ambulance and tow truck, but after the latter arrives first, the attacks begin. Bertino makes good use of the dark and the rain, as well as the confined quarters of the car. He also ties in Lizzy’s earlier frustrations with Kathy for “not listening,” by having the latter insist on getting out to see what’s going on, despite Lizzy’s justified terror. Even though vehicles turn out not to be a match for the monster, you will find yourself yelling, “Just stay in the damn car!!”
Kazan is very convincing as perhaps not-the-brightest mother, but one determined to fight and save Lizzy, and Ballantine is able to speak volumes with her expressions. The monster is mostly impressive-looking – kind of like a small Godzilla with a hell of a lot of teeth. The film doesn’t shy away from graphic attack scenes either, with the creature tearing right into people. It’s not entirely clear, but the monster seems to serve as a metaphor for Lizzy finding her own strength, especially since we don’t get any backstory for it (alien? mutant? leftover dinosaur??), and she is the one who figures out the best way to use its apparent fear of the light.
Apart from being well-acted, “The Monster” avoids a lot of cliches and keeps you guessing right up until the end. It’s in theaters and On Demand now through A24 Films.