There’s something to be said for complexity. It can hew closer to strident than you would like, but it is also what gives a movie depth. You get to chew through the layers, really savor each revelation as it reveals itself. And that’s where A Monster Calls succeeds. It throws a lot at the wall, and a lot of it sticks. The one thing that doesn’t land, however, is the perhaps overly pointed attempt at tiger-like swiping at your heartstrings.
The idea of layers and complexity is almost inherent in the movie’s structure, which is actually based on 2011 children’s book of the same name, the author of which returns as the screenwriter. A young boy named Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is described as older than he should be, which itself is a sad notion. His mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones), for reasons you’ll find out, is forced to let Conor manage his life and their home all on his own. His grandmother is overbearing, his father is estranged, and he gets a daily beating from a school bully.
Basically, life isn’t great for him. But one night, a humongous, tree-like monster (basically a Tolkien Ent or oversized Groot) comes barreling through the wall of his room like a Kool-Aid spokesperson. The monster (Liam Neeson) promises this happening at least three more times, each one coinciding with another story from the botanical giant told in a wonderful watercolor style. That fourth visit, however, will require Conor to tell him a story instead.
Each of these, as it turns out, is a tremendous, thinly veiled parable of a nuanced and unpopular lesson in life. The first one, for instance, is about how a witch doesn’t necessarily need to be evil, even if she is evil. The flip of that is that not every fairy tale prince is a hero, and that we lie to ourselves about how we build up these traditionalist micro narratives to make sense of the world. And while we often embrace that deception, it’s just as important to realize the truth.
That—and the rest of the stories—can clearly be applicable to Conor’s life, but they are slightly skewed even at that. It’s just enough to where you, just as Conor, have to pierce a moderate level of dissemination to get there. That resistance helps these points, as straightforward as they are, land with more potency, more urgency.
And to be clear, none of these are happy endings, let alone the main story of the film itself. This is a brave story, refusing to give in to the idea of resolutions that are beyond the base and superficial. It telegraphs it a bit in the middle of the second act, but these are dark, dense, and immense themes you are sifting through. It asks you to consider many things, and none of them will lift you up.
It’s important, though, that they are so dour and necessarily complex. It feels like an accomplishment when you reach the end, as if you digested a thickly constructed thesis on what it means to be a monster. It’s a question broached from several angles at once, forcing introspection on why there are monsters, what do they do, and why do they do what they do. Running this thematic gauntlet is an achievement in and of itself.
That’s a lesson you rarely see in a coming-of-age story. Those tales aren’t this somber and unconventional. You don’t end up looking towards the sky and considering the vast infinite possibilities of growing up. You instead look inwards and ponder what’s rumbling around in there and why is it worth keeping it up. You end up stark, stoic, spartan. You end up a monster. You have to be.
Unfortunately, the final conclusion—inevitable and as crushing as it is—ends up feeling somewhat tepid. It’s supposed to be, I think, given the emotional tenor of the story and the mores we’re supposed to collect along the way. But the movie structures itself to look like you should be openly weeping by the end, almost too forcibly. Like director J. A. Bayona is actively trying to wring tears out of your eyes with his bare hands.
Of course, none of it would work without the full and incredible acting capabilities of the cast. It’s a small set of characters, but they’re all overflowing with purpose and, as a consequence, meat for the actors to work with. MacDougall is fantastic at lending the appropriate gravitas to Conor, making him look as wearied and broken as he should be. There’s no part of the character that isn’t completely believable.
Jones is great, too, as is Sigourney Weaver as the grandmother, but Toby Kebbell warrants special mention as the estranged father. He has the exact sense of distant but powerful love for Conor required to make their relationship be precisely what it needs to be. Almost immediately, without hearing explicitly what has happened, we can just see where they are with each other and where desires and demands conflict and congeal.
There’s a lot to be said about A Monster Calls. The dissection of what each story means and what is metaphorical and what is literal of each parable is a fascinating study. And how they feed back into the main narrative is just as impressive, but it doesn’t seem to fully embrace the themes established early on by the time the credits roll. That doesn’t stop it from being a powerful movie and it shouldn’t stop you from seeing it.
Final Score: 8 out of 10