There might be spoilers in the last two paragraphs, so beware of how far you read if you
don’t want any hints as to the conclusion.
Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
I went about as one who laments for a mother,
bowed down and in mourning.
Spanish director J.A. Bayona, who in 2012 gave us the wonderful, grace-filled disaster film The Impossible, returns in a very different film with A Monster Calls. His previous film was set amidst a tsunami that took over 230,000 lives in Southeast Asia. This one, based on screenwriter Patrick Ness’s own novel of the same name*, is more miniature in scope, dealing with the impending death of a mother and the anger of her son who does not want to give her up.
The film, set in England, begins with 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) on the edge of a cliff near an old stone church and a huge yew tree. An earthquake has just destroyed the church, and deep fissures split the grounds. In a close-up, we see his hand holding onto that of what we assume is a woman’s. His grip is slipping, he lets go, and…he wakes up. It is a bad dream, one that keeps recurring throughout the film.
The next morning, he looks in upon his mother, still asleep, and fixes his own breakfast. Afterwards, when he returns to her room, bedridden Lizzy (Felicity Jones) talks about her wigs and a new chemotherapy treatment. When she says that he will not have to fix his own breakfast because his grandmother is coming, he is clearly not pleased. At school an older boy stares at him, and after class follows him with two friends, who watch as he beats up Conor.
That night as he is about to go to sleep, the numbers on his digital clock switch from 12:06 to 12:07. He hears a deep voice calling his name. The huge yew tree near the old church, which he can see at a distance from his bedroom window, shakes, slowly taking on a humanoid form, becoming a tree monster. The boy tells it to go away, but the Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) grabs and carries him outside, telling him that he does not come around often, but that he will visit him again to tell him three stories, and that then Conor will tell a fourth. It will deal with truth, Conor’s truth about what he is most afraid of, and which he hides in his dreams. This is why he (Conor) has called out to him. When the Monster is gone, and Conor is back in his room, the floor is covered with leaves. Was this more than a bad dream?
Grandma does show up, and it is immediately apparent that her strictness does not set well with Connor. He keeps asserting that his Mum will soon be well after another treatment. When she tries to prepare him for what she sees as the inevitable result of the cancer, he angrily lashes out at her.
Later he has to move in with her, his anger over this and his mother’s illness erupting in a fury that causes him to destroy a room full of her possessions, the loss that hurts her the most being a beautiful heirloom, an antique grandfather clock. This destructive episode accompanies the Monster’s second story which ends with the Monster destroying the church.
Part of the boy’s feeling of loss erupting into anger is due to his divorced father (Toby Kebbell) returning for a short visit from Los Angeles where he has remarried and is raising a daughter. Conor wants him to stay, but he cannot, due to his American family and job. The promise that he will return in a couple of weeks, and that Conor can visit them at Christmas time is not consoling.
The Monster does return three times to tell the promised stories, but they are so dark and morally ambiguous (if not repugnant) that the boy is left frustrated and puzzled. There is no trace of the simple moral or inspirational lesson contained in most fairy tales. The first two stories are illustrated by water color animation, skillfully executed. We also wonder about them, though as each tale progresses, both Conor and we viewers begin to see their connection to the boy and his situation, especially when Mum tells her son, after the chemo treatment fails, that her doctors are going to try a treatment using a medicine extracted from yew trees. The fearful boy has been pleading all along for Mum to be cured, but as the stories progress, the Monster tells him that he has come not for his Mum’s sake, but for Conor’s.
Though the intended audience for the film and book is children, this dark tale is very different from such cheery tales as Trolls or Sing. Adults should take seriously the PG-13 rating and pay attention to the conversations between Conor and the Monster, the latter an embodiment of his fierce anger and rage. Children, especially if they discuss the film with an adult, will discover that humans are far more complex creatures than those found in most other films and books. As the Monster explains after telling the story about a prince, there is no good or bad guy in the story—most people are in between the poles of Good and Bad. But the ultimate truth that the Monster forces Conor to face and admit is more specific, more personal. It stems from the basic human desire to escape from, or to end, suffering. This is the meaning of his persistent dream of letting go of his mother’s hand, a truth which he, like so many of us faced with the seemingly endless suffering of a loved one, buries deep within himself.
Have you felt anger at times that it seems a monster is taking over? I recall an incident when I was a child working on what was then called a “stick model” airplane, requiring that long thin strips of balsa wood had to be glued to a series of carboard bulkheads, and then over the struts, colored tissue paper glued to them, forming the skin of the fuselage and wings. You pressed the stick onto the spot of glue on the bulkhead and had to wait a few minutes until the glue dried. I did this for several struts, but the glue would not hold for one, and the stick sprung up when I released my hold on it. I reglued it several times, but still the stick would not hold. I finally grew so frustrated and irritated that I raised the model, over which I had already labored a couple of hours, and smashed it to the ground. The anger last several minutes more, until it was replaced with regret. I had spent my allowance money on the model, and spent a couple of hours in assembling it!
And regarding Conor’s truth, perhaps you also have felt a tinge of impatience when visiting a loved one in a hospital or hospice that it was taking so long for the sufferer to die. You probably pushed this feeling or thought down because it centered as much on yourself as on the loved one. You certainly would not express it aloud to anyone, knowing how selfish it would seound. And yet it is there, and often the relief that we feel when the victim finally gives in to death is for ourselves as well. We say, “Well, at last she is no longer suffering” and secretly add, “nor am I,” even though sorrow will linger.
The conclusion of the film is masterfully dramatized, Conor at last able to accept his truth, painful though it is, and to accept it. The reconciliation with Grandmother, and her remark that their common ground is their love for Lizzy, is heart-warming. When Conor is in his new room at Grandmother’s house, he sees his mother’s little book of drawings she had made as a child. No doubt Grandmother placed it there for him. Leafing through it, he is surprised at what she drew so many years earlier. And this should remind us of that hospital scene in which he had let her go, and the expression on her face as she looked beyond her son to see behind him…well, you discover this for yourself.
This dark, complex tale offers so much to adults and children alike that I cannot recommend it highly enough. Though it does not follow the usual path of faith in regards to death—one might wish Grandma or one of the parents had the faith expressed at the beginning of Psalm 35—it is a profoundly spiritual film, one of benefit to believer and nonbeliever.
*Which in turn was based on a story by Irish writer Siobhan Dowd. Ironically Siobhan Dowd died in 2007 of breast cancer. She had started the book, and when she could not finish it, Patrick Ness took it on, giving her credit.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.