Saturday, January 7, 2017

Review: "A Monster Calls" is a Powerful Movie About Love and Loss

Scene from A Monster Calls
There is a moment that comes in the third act of director J.A. Boyana's A Monster Calls that is more gut wrenching than any traditional drama (even Manchester By the Sea) achieved in 2016. It's a moment in which Conor (Lewis MacDougal) is forced to come to terms with his mother's (Felicty Jones) long and unsuccessful battle with cancer. The imagery is chaotic, yet its prose immediately thrusts the viewer into the insular understanding that goes with the concept of loss. It is a moment that overwhelms the senses, eventually creating a break that should get the waterworks flowing. More than any other film in 2016, it understands the power of visual story telling as an art form, mixing familiar themes of anxiety with the supernatural. However, this isn't a monster movie about going on adventures - at least not in the familiar way. It's about the uncertainty that comes with grieving, and the struggle to find truth through its frustrations. It may take a very familiar route regarding the cancer story, but its journey there is one of the most breathtaking abstractions melancholic family cinema has ever seen.

The general concept of monster movies are often thrown into the horror genre for their juvenile use of an opposing threat. It's a fair point, as they represent something that can't often be understood. Yet for a niche audience, those films are breathtaking in their abilities to transport us to worlds we could only imagine. For a more mature audience, monsters can be something more personal. Early in the film, Conor is seen with his mother watching the 1933 version of King Kong. Conor asks her why they are harming the misunderstood eighth wonder of the world. It's an argument that applies to Conor's own life: Kong is misunderstood. Alas, King Kong is one of many films of the 30's to feature monsters who served as existential reflections of outcasts. The flamboyant director James Whale made Bride of Frankenstein secretly a film about being an oppressed homosexual - cleverly hidden under innuendos of the time. 

For Conor, the monster that is in his life isn't on the screen, but cuddling him with the hope that they'll be together forever. It isn't his mom, but the disease that is killing her slowly while failing to provide any silver lining. It's still a monster that is hard to understand, but who will serve as the demon Conor will fight for the rest of the film. Taking the shape of his interior struggle is The Monster (Liam Neeson), who shares parables with the young boy in hopes that he will understand this experience greater. Like the conclusions to each story, they are concepts butting heads that don't always make sense, at least on a literal value. For the viewer, the cryptic text makes sense in time for the emotional finale. It's one of those things that are both great and disappointing about maturing; understanding that life doesn't always make sense.

These are concepts that are fine on their own, but Boyana knows that one of the potential thrills of A Monster Calls as a film is its artistic flourishes. Beyond the metaphorical supporting title character, he uses his various parables as a chance to reflect a deeper creative process symbolic to Conor himself. Many scenes play out in a splendid, calming visual pallet of watercolors that turn the most ferocious stories into their own childish works of art. As each story ends, the transitions occur within The Monster's own frayed body; made up of a tree that grew in a nearby yard. It does excellent work at blending reality with Conor's fantasy, eventually melding them into a personal portrait of how looming The Monster will be in his life. He isn't necessarily evil, but used more as a cathartic plot device to find conventional wisdom within the supernatural world.

This is monster cinema as a metaphor, and it may be one of the most depressing examples of the genre to ever exist. The film is a wondrous, transcendent exploration of loss at a young age that is unlike any other cancer story told. The story may go a familiar route, but it's no less crushing to experience the moment. Felicity Jones is convincingly aged into her final frail state, giving motherly advice that cuts to the core. Sigourney Weaver stars as Conor's grandmother, and a conflicting figure who starts off as the enemy that he will have to live with in the near future. As much as this is a story about loss, it's a story about coping and moving on. For Conor, those outlets are creativity, and the film treats it with earnest beauty that shows in every frame of the picture. Thankfully Boyana is also skilled at mixing heightened set pieces with grounded emotional tweaks, even turning images such as a frayed glass window into something artful. The film knows how to appeal to the artists in all of us, and it is why the third act manages to be more than plot points.

A Monster Calls is more than a monster movie. It's one that will likely get children through a rough time, given their unfortunate circumstance. Even then, it's a powerful exploration of one of the real world's greatest monsters, and one whose defeat comes with a terrible price. Maybe the world could get better, but it's still painful to live that moment knowing that it's inevitable. By turning it into a monster movie, it manages to find new ways to explore the themes while creating dull and insular concepts into works of art that show the capabilities of cinema. This is more than a silly film. It's one that will overwhelm with profundity and sadness. It won't be from manipulative moments, but just from a clarity of vision, and the ability to make the argument that monsters can be taken seriously. They just need a proper setting.

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