Saturday, 19 August 2017

A Monster Calls (2017) - Movie Review

With how many times the average person comes across it in a standard day, we tend to underappreciate the strength of storytelling. With the right words and imagery, something as mundane as what a person had for breakfast can tell some poignant things about the human condition. Or, at least, I’m assuming that’s the case; quite frankly, I can’t think of another reason why people seem to be so intent on sharing every single meal they ever have on social media.
But even that easy target, how people use social media, itself is a form of storytelling. Sometimes, it’s just to provide snapshots of a person’s life that might a few disparate thoughts into place and help things make a bit more sense. Other times, it’s to completely detach from the real world for a time, absorbing one’s self in the fantastical and frequently loopy details of fiction. But there are times when we tell each other stories, and even tell ourselves certain stories, because the reality that they represent is a little too confronting to take on without some form of filter. That particular situation will be the subject of today’s film; as someone who prides cinema as a highly effective method of storytelling, I’ll admit that I’m quite curious about how this will turn out.

The plot: 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is surrounded by unfavourable events and people. From the school bully Harry (James Melville) who refuses to leave him alone to his largely absent father (Toby Kebbell) to his terminally-ill mother (Felicity Jones) to his controlling grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), Conor has a lot to deal with. However, on a seemingly ordinary night, a visitor shows up to his room: A monster in the form of a walking yew tree (Liam Neeson). The monster tells Conor that it will tell him three stories, after which Conor must tell the monster his own story. If he fails to do so, he will be punished.

MacDougall is a little passive as our focal point character, but that feeling isn’t nearly enough to eclipse how hard this kid sells the very harrowing and at times frighteningly complex emotions he’s been given. Jones as the ‘perfect dying mother’, and yes this is essentially its own trope by this point, plays that chord well enough but never really goes beyond it. Kebbell as the father, while not on screen as much as one would like, does a fair bit to add some texture to the larger story by filling in some of the gaps. It also helps that it’s nice seeing Kebbell attached to a fantastical story that is worth participating in, unlike that other Fantastic nightmare he was part of. Weaver is stern and rather bland as the grandmother, filling in the authority role at home but again not doing much else beyond that.
And then there’s Neeson, and his casting here somehow makes none and all of the sense at the same time. None, because his very dry delivery in other films has essentially made his non-action roles something of a placid meme. All, because his low and very earthen voice not only gives the dialogue itself a lot of gravitas but also makes the individual stories that much more enthralling to listen to.

And speaking of those stories, J.A. Bayona seems to have tapped into something here in how he chose to present them, starting with the being telling them. The titular Monster manages to strike that balance between the obviously supernatural and the tangibly natural in its bark-for-muscle and twigs-for-veins design. Aided by Neeson’s vocals and motion capture performance, the Monster creates that break in reality that magic realism stories require without completely shattering reality in the process; it’s odd but not so odd as to feel like it doesn’t belong. The scenes featuring the Monster wreaking havoc, splintering the ground and household furnishings in equal measure, likewise keep the perpetrator within the realms of reality. Making the audience believe that monsters exist in a film’s universe is hardly a new frontier, but after seeing a fair few films this year alone fail to create cohesion between its own realities, it’s nice to see someone actually pull it off.
Yet, this isn’t even the film’s highest visual point; that is reserved for the telling of the stories. Presented as animated watercolours, they are told in true fable fashion as allegories for something much deeper under the surface, with the dripping paint and water splashes bringing them to life on the screen’s pages.

The stories themselves, credit to writer Patrick Ness, are rather classical in their structure: The swords-and-sorcery tone of the prince taking down an evil witch-queen, the industrial shift of the pastor begging a medicine man to heal his daughters and even a touch of abstraction with the story of the invisible man. However, while they have touches of the familiar, they all end up going further than what most would consider fairy tales. In fairy tales, morality is always clear and conflicts between characters are rather simple, not just in who is on what side but also fuelled by plain drives: Greed, wrath, pride, etc.
As the individual stories unfold, and the Monster provides further context to what we are hearing and seeing, we are given instances of complexity within humans that we don’t usually associate with these stories. Good men become their own kind of monster, their enemies shown to be more human than first thought, and what begins as simple acquisitions and bargains turns into statements about the deeper mentality of humans. As much as part of me just wants to gush over the presentation and the versatility shown in the story-within-a-storytelling, that would detract from the worth of the stories on their own, serving as little glimpses at larger people with even larger stacks of motivation behind them.

Director J.A. Bayona got his first real break off the back of The Orphanage, a Guillermo Del Toro-funded ghost story that operated in the same realist framework as Guillermo’s own ghostly works. This is yet another example of Bayona’s nodding to his mentor, even bringing in Studio DDT to handle the effects work; DDT being the studio behind some of Guillermo’s most remembered creations like the Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth. This film also operates as a realistic drama with an element or two of the fantastical, the latter meant mainly to accompany and give texture to the former. As Conor struggles to deal with his life as it is shown, being constantly bullied at school, torn between parental figures as well as coping with his mother’s illness, the stories take on another purpose: The lies we tell ourselves. Unlike the great tales of old that we tell each other, human beings aren’t so simple as to be guided simply by a want to do good or evil. Hell, most of us don’t even stretch as far as defining things as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in the first place. We all carry both within us, it’s nothing to be ashamed of; as the Monster himself says, it’s less what we think and more what we do that matters.
Through the magical intrusion, Conor’s personal arc reaches a point that both outclasses a lot of other coming-of-age semi-fantasy yarns but also delves into a far darker tone than even most aimed-at-mature-audience narratives would dare. What results from this is a showing of sheer honesty and painful acceptance that has real worth, not just as a fictional story but as the comforting lie meant to lead the way to an ugly but necessary truth. I'm still kind of floored that the film is as open as it is about certain darker thoughts that Conor has, considering how many "mature" films I've covered on here that seem to go out of their way to avoid such things.

All in all, this is yet another notch in Bayona’s scabbard as a visually and thematically masterful storyteller. The acting is good where it needs to be, the writing manages the fantasy/reality dichotomy of magic realism better than quite a few recent efforts, and the effects work makes the simple act of experiencing a story seem exciting all on its own. But all of that only creates true merit when brought into the context of the main story, a familiar tale of grief and reluctance that is given the kind of maturity and willingness to fall into the abyss that we could certainly use a lot more of nowadays. With Bayona’s next production from here being the sequel to Jurassic World, I’m certain that the level of talent on display here will survive the transition; yet another lie that I will have to overcome before too long.

No comments:

Post a Comment