Humans are complicated beasts: A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls (2016)

Even though it boasts a great cast, stunning visual effects and a promising premise, A Monster Calls is too dark and a missed opportunity

A Monster Calls


Di­rect­ed by J. A. Bay­ona. Screen­play by Patrick Ness, based on his nov­el “A Mon­ster Calls” from an idea by Siob­han Dowd. Star­ring Lewis Mac­Dougall, Fe­lic­i­ty Jones, Sigour­ney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, James Melville, Geral­dine Chap­lin and Max Golds.

When we think about com­ing-of-age fan­ta­sy films, such as The Wiz­ard of Oz (1939), Where the Wild Things Are (2009) or The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia (2005), it is easy to see what they are try­ing to do and who their au­di­ence is. In the case of J. A. Bayona’s A Mon­ster Calls, I couldn’t help but won­der af­ter some time: who was this movie made for? Is this a children’s sto­ry? Con­sid­er­ing how dark it is and the way it deals with themes like dy­ing, loss, guilt, aban­don­ment, soli­tude and how we must learn to let go of some­one we love, I would say this is far from the fam­i­ly movie it clear­ly wants to be – and the fact that it doesn’t re­al­ly know how to go all the way and ex­plore these themes into a more con­sis­tent whole makes it a missed op­por­tu­ni­ty as well.

Writ­ten by Patrick Ness and based on his own children’s nov­el of the same name (from an orig­i­nal idea by Siob­han Dowd, who was too ill to write it at the time and died of breast can­cer), A Mon­ster Calls is cen­tered on Conor O’Malley (Lewis Mac­Dougall), a 13-year-old boy who is forced to face the fact that his moth­er (Fe­lic­i­ty Jones) is dy­ing when he re­ceives an un­ex­pect­ed vis­it at pre­cise­ly sev­en min­utes past mid­night (12:07). The vis­i­tor, a tree-like Mon­ster voiced by Liam Nee­son, claims that Conor sum­moned him and warns the boy that he will vis­it again to tell him three sto­ries, af­ter which Conor must tell him a fourth and that shall be the truth – the truth about what he hides from him­self and what he is so afraid of when he dreams.

At first, A Mon­ster Calls gives a promis­ing in­di­ca­tion of its the­mat­ic am­bi­tions, open­ing with a night­mare scene that shows a house col­laps­ing on a ceme­tery. The movie is full of sym­bol­ism re­flect­ing what the char­ac­ters are go­ing through, like with the three sto­ries the Mon­ster tells Conor – al­though only the first is ac­tu­al­ly ef­fec­tive enough. The nar­ra­tive is also in­tel­li­gent to present its el­e­ments with­out re­sort­ing to ex­po­si­tion: Conor wakes up in the morn­ing, gets dressed to school, pre­pares his own break­fast and puts clothes in­side the wash­ing ma­chine. We see reme­dies in the kitchen cab­i­net, and when we hear his moth­er cough­ing and fi­nal­ly find her pros­trat­ed in bed with a short hair, we un­der­stand.

Mo­ments like this are per­fect in their sub­tle­ty, and I per­son­al­ly love the re­cur­rence of bro­ken mir­rors and glass­es. This is not an easy film to take, and it doesn’t want to be. It doesn’t try to ex­plain pain and anger, and I deeply ad­mire how it un­der­stands the com­plex­i­ty of hu­man feel­ings. But while the first sto­ry told by the Mon­ster (in­volv­ing a good prince and an evil queen) does re­flect how Conor feels about his grand­moth­er (to a cer­tain ex­tent, that is), the oth­er two are more con­fus­ing than telling. Sto­ries may be “wild an­i­mals,” as the Mon­ster says, but there is a lim­it be­tween metaphor­i­cal and half-baked, and so even the one about an in­tol­er­ant par­son who los­es his faith, for in­stance, is more frus­trat­ing than in­sight­ful.

Worse than that is how the movie clear­ly seems to im­ply for a while that Conor is gay (as well as his bul­ly, a re­pressed one) only to re­veal lat­er on that he only fears be­ing… in­vis­i­ble. Now, this has got to be one of the lazi­est turns of events in re­cent years, es­pe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing that Conor has al­ways been very much vis­i­ble as a con­stant tar­get of bul­lies at school. Where the hell does that come from? Sim­ple: it is only a lame ex­cuse for a third sto­ry (or a shred of one, to be hon­est) so that the bul­ly­ing sub­plot could lead some­where. I re­al­ly wish the film were a lot more am­bi­tious than this, since even its fi­nal twist con­cern­ing the iden­ti­ty of the Mon­ster (just pay at­ten­tion to the mother’s old pho­tos) doesn’t work and feels com­plete­ly un­nec­es­sary.

On the oth­er hand, the ac­tors do a won­der­ful job. Mac­Dougall and Jones de­liv­er some touch­ing mo­ments to­geth­er, while Sigour­ney Weaver com­pos­es Conor’s grand­moth­er as a strict woman who also suf­fers and is try­ing to deal with her own pain – and I ab­solute­ly love how the movie es­chews any temp­ta­tion of show­ing her as mean or self­ish to­wards Conor’s feel­ings. Like­wise, Conor’s fa­ther (Toby Kebbell) may now live with a new fam­i­ly in the Unit­ed States but still has a lot of af­fec­tion for his son, which can be seen when they spend some time to­geth­er at an amuse­ment park. Clos­ing the cast, Liam Nee­son proves us once again why he is asked so many times to play the role of wise men­tors – let’s face it, he was born for that.

But if there is some­thing that tru­ly stands out in A Mon­ster Calls more than any­thing else, it is its daz­zling vi­su­als. Right in the open­ing cred­its, we see a draw­ing pen­cil and inkblots cre­at­ing forms like in a Rorschach test: a clock, a door, a cas­tle, a tree. When the Mon­ster tells his sto­ries, they ap­pear as gor­geous ink shapes that merge with one an­oth­er and form new ones, like the evil queen be­com­ing a huge skull or the dark ink around her turn­ing into black birds. More im­pres­sive than these scenes, though, is the movie’s won­der­ful CGI, es­pe­cial­ly when we see the Mon­ster com­ing out of a tree and his branch­es sur­round­ing Conor when­ev­er he is about to tell a new sto­ry – not to men­tion the Monster’s de­sign, with his eyes full of emo­tions.

Us­ing a beau­ti­ful score and a sad col­or palette that re­in­forces Conor’s col­or­less life in a rainy city, A Mon­ster Calls also ben­e­fits from im­pres­sive scene tran­si­tions – like a slow dis­solve from Conor’s face to a pour­ing rain (as if Conor is lit­er­al­ly turn­ing into drops) or when the Monster’s hand hold­ing Conor be­comes the base of a tree. Or, even more mean­ing­ful, when we see a vi­su­al jux­ta­po­si­tion of Conor and the Mon­ster. These mo­ments do help el­e­vate the film, and that is why the sil­ly rev­e­la­tion in the end feels more like cheat­ing and al­most ru­ins a nar­ra­tive that could have been so much more in­tel­li­gent than that.

May 12, 2017


One Comment

  1. I com­plete­ly agree with your per­spec­tive on the movie, es­pe­cial­ly on the part of the gay un­der­tones in re­gards to Conor and his bul­ly, even more, it seemed like both char­ac­ters used the ‘bul­ly­ing’ as an ex­cuse to be close (“O’­Mal­ley and I have an agree­ment, only I can touch him”, etc…) — I was def­i­nite­ly ex­pect­ing some­thing to hap­pen in re­gards to that, only to be sur­prised with that ter­ri­ble ‘in­vis­i­ble’ ar­gu­ment, which re­al­ly did not fit the nar­ra­tive at all, es­pe­cial­ly with all the build-up around O’­Mal­ley and Har­ry. Un­for­tu­nate­ly, I felt like many op­por­tu­ni­ties (such as this one) were missed, such as bond­ing with the grand­ma, etc…

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