7.5 out of 10
Lewis MacDougall as Conor
Directed by J.A. Bayona
A Monster Calls Review:
Cinema is manipulation, pure and simple. From the very first days of the artform, filmmakers have been seeking reactions from the audience, whether it’s a cowboy causing people to duck by shooting at the camera, or a train coming straight at the screen. Later, cinema played with our emotions, our fears, our dreams and hopes, and our sorrows. There are filmmakers who are experts in how to orchestrate these things; Steven Spielberg is a master, but there are many others. And then there are filmmakers where you can see the strings as they try to puppet the audience into how they want them to react. Those films are chores to sit through for me; I’d much rather be swept away, and even when in my heart I know that what I’m experiencing is a false catharsis, it still feels as genuine as something that happened to me in reality, if the filmmaker is any good. Which brings us to A Monster Calls.
I can only talk about my reaction to it, because much of A Monster Calls feels very personal to me. I’ve lived a lot of it in different ways – any film involving cancer or the death of a close family member automatically gets my attention, and when those emotional paths become clear, it’s as much recognition as it is a willingness to be taken away on that cinematic journey. Make no mistake, A Monster Calls is a cancer movie, and people who may be triggered by that sort of thing should know going in. Director J.A. Bayona spares no weapon from his considerable arsenal to make you feel deeply, and for some that will be enough. For others, like myself, we can see ourselves being manipulated, but we don’t mind when it works because we are willing to go where the filmmakers want to take us. But, at the same time, there are moments in A Monster Calls that feel cheap, that do not feel earned, when the score swells up and the effects work takes over and the filmmakers grab you by the collar and demand attention, and those moments you can definitely see the machinery underneath, which can take some audiences right out of the movie. I’m one of the easier filmgoers in that regard — as I’ve said, I recognize that all cinema is manipulation — but nonetheless it is jarring when you are in tune with the story and you are suddenly transported back into your seat.
A Monster Calls, based on the children’s book by Patrick Ness (which was written after author Siobhan Dowd conceived of the idea while suffering from terminal cancer; she was not able to write it and so Ness completed her idea), centers around young Conor (Lewis MacDougall), sent to be with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) after his mother’s (Felicity Jones) cancer takes a turn for the worse. Conor, suffering from bullies at school, feels utterly alone, but he befriends/imagines a giant monster in the shape of a yew tree outside his school. The monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) tells Conor four stories, and through each of those stories, Conor comes to an understanding of loss, anger, and bravery. Conor’s struggle becomes our own throughout the course of the film, and Bayona, sometimes gracefully and other times not so much, pulls at our heartstrings as each story is revealed, and a facet of Conor becomes understood.
What makes A Monster Calls work most of the time are the performances. I was very impressed with young MacDougall’s work here, as he has to do quite a lot of heavy emotional lifting throughout, especially considering that much of the time he’s working against green screen with no idea of what his character is supposed to be seeing (Neeson did work with MacDougall on several key moments). Liam Neeson’s voice is always welcome; he has a natural affinity for bringing strength and power to his voice, and even when the monster is being terrifying, you can hear the empathy and gentleness underneath. The performance I was most impressed with was Sigourney Weaver’s as Conor’s grandmother – stern to a fault, who keeps her house sterile and untouchable by Conor, Weaver’s character is also struggling with her own demons, and Weaver does it all without a lot of dialogue or awards-showy moments. Bayona is a good director in how he works with actors, and that is one of A Monster Calls’ strengths.
Here’s the thing – I’ve lived with A Monster Calls in my life. Not the book, but the reality. I’ve lost a father to cancer. I know intimately well the rage, the loss, and the grief Conor feels, and A Monster Calls does not hold back in that regard. People who have experienced this kind of loss will find much to recognize in this movie. There’s one particular scene, when Conor destroys his grandmother’s living room in a fit of anger, which I recognized very, very well. Because of that, it’s difficult for me to find that place between how A Monster Calls affected my personally and how I think the movie should work critically. There are segments that just hit too close to home. At the same time, I can feel Bayona behind the scenes, orchestrating each scene for maximum power, and sometimes he overplays his hand when a little more subtlety would have sufficed. That’s when a filmmaker isn’t trusting enough of his own skills, but I also understood that there are some sequences that had to play broadly to make sure the point hit home.
And for many, that will be enough, because when A Monster Calls works, which is most of the time, there are few movies as gutwrenching and emotional. It feels reductive to say that with A Monster Calls Your Mileage May Vary, but for a lot of the film, your own personal experiences with grief will be what informs what you see. We’ve all experienced loss. It is a common unifying emotion. When A Monster Calls works best is when J.A. Bayona allows the movie to breathe inside those recognizable moments, when we are brought back to a measure of pain but with the knowledge that we, too, survived it. That’s when A Monster Calls truly makes us feel its power.