Film Review: ‘The Monster’ Features a Transcendent Zoe Kazan Performance

the-monsterFemale stars of horror films are often pigeonholed into being depicted as just scream queens. When they supersede that, there’s rightly tons of acclaim. With any luck, Zoe Kazan will be joining those ranks for her work in “The Monster.” This is the type of performance that you find yourself in awe of when the credits roll. Kazan stands tall with recent ace horror performances like Maika Monroe in “It Follows” and Sharni Vinson in “You’re Next,” to name two. She anchors Bryan Bertino‘s very solid movie and makes something special out of it. There are scares, for sure, but Kazan brings poignancy to the fright flick.

“The Monster” uses themes of parenting, personal failure and standing up for your kin as an entry into a literal monster movie. Bertino structures the first half of the film as just a straight drama, only really introducing terror midway through. As such, Kazan’s maternal role is even weightier. You know the stakes, which go beyond the traditional ones of the genre. Even when the film itself begins to show its budgetary limitations, the acting on display pulls you through with confidence. If more films of this ilk existed, I suspect horror would get a bit more respect than it currently does.

This film is very much a slow burner. It begins with an introduction to Lizzie (Ella Ballentine), a preteen living in an nonideal environment. She’s seen cleaning up empty beer bottles and waking up her young mother Kathy (Kazan), looking like she had a rough night. It’s clear early on that Kathy is an iffy mother at best, with flashbacks fleshing that out and showing just how flawed she is. Setting out on a road trip, there are tensions aplenty. Lizzie loves her mother, but knows she’s not right at the moment. Her unseen father provides a potential escape. On the road, however, things do not go smoothly. Kathy needles Lizzie and all but picks a fight, though when the car breaks down, that becomes the least of their issues.

Stuck on the road, Kathy and Lizzie soon realize that they’re not alone. First, it’s the disappearance of that animal they hit. Then, it’s the discovery of its half eaten carcass. Before long, they lay eyes on a horrific monster, one that has designs on them. The body count rises as good Samaritans or rescue workers attempt to save them and become victims themselves. Eventually, Kathy decides that it’s up to her to save the day, even if it means a terrible sacrifice. The final portion of the movie is particularly emotional, with a real emphasis on what it means to be a good parent.

the-monster-zoe-kazan-ella-ballentineThe central role would have been a juicy opportunity for any actress, but Kazan truly does something transcendent here. By giving us a three dimensional character, she invests us heavily in the drama. Then, when the horror kicks in, her fight for survival is all the more real. Kazan will blow you away. She’s always a strong and criminally underrated actress, but this is a whole new side of her. Hopefully, some awards body will recognize her. Ballentine is very solid as well, in particular showing a great and uneasy chemistry with Kazan. Supporting players in the very small cast include Aaron Douglas, Christine Ebadi and Scott Speedman.

Writer/director Bertino showcases many of the same skills he put forward in “The Strangers.” His ability to twist the screws and ramp up tension are in full effect. Bertino is a director who loves showing you his characters being seen. Since this is horror, it’s a tense effect, one he smartly doesn’t overplay. “The Monster” features a simple look. Julie Kirkwood‘s cinematography executes his vision, with the added bonus of shielding the slightly cheap look of the monster in question. Musically, the score by tomandandy (Tom Hajdu and Andy Milburn) is able to nudge you in the directions that Bertino’s script needs you to go. The writing doesn’t give you anything you haven’t seen before, but Bertino’s casting of Kazan is the true high water mark. She gives her all and he reaps the benefits.

“The Monster” is supremely satisfying, both as horror and as a character study. Furthermore, Kazan is just so terrific in the role that it demands to be seen. If you enjoyed “The Strangers” then there should be no reason why this wouldn’t appeal to you. If the overall film is a slight step down, the acting is a number of steps up. Bertino is an intriguing voice in horror. “The Monster” will do an effective job of scaring you, but Kazan will do a sublime job of moving you.

“The Monster” is distributed by A24 and is scheduled to hit theaters and On Demand on Nov. 11. It is currently available on DirecTV.

GRADE: (★★★)

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