Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Monster Calls: Bayona’s Tear-Jerking Genre Fable

You do not have to dig very deep to find Britain’s pagan roots when almost every other pub is called the Green Man. That leafy mythological figure (who also frequently pops up on church cornices) provides a primal connection to nature and the great wheel of life. Who better to teach a distressed thirteen-year-old lessons in life and the acceptance of death than a giant Green Man-like monster? Although the morals of his stories are not readily apparent, the Yew tree creature might just help young Conor O’Malley come to terms with his mother’s mortality in J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls (trailer here), adapted by Patrick Ness from his own young adult novel, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Conor O’Malley is a sensitive but angry kid. His formerly hippyish mother Lizzie is clearly fading, but he keeps doubling-down on false hope. However, the Yew tree monster will force O’Malley to face facts when he rather ominously appears to the young lad. Like a reverse Scheherazade, the Monster will tell O’Malley three cryptic fables over three successive nights, at which point the confused boy must be prepared to tell the monster his “truth”—the secret eating away inside him.

Meanwhile, O’Malley must deal with his materialistic grandmother, the absentee father he yearns to know better, and the school bully, who just won’t give the kid a break. Of course, he searches for interpretations of each tale that suggest reasons for hope, but the Monster offers radically different but perhaps even more pertinent meanings.

If all the elements had not lined up just right, Monster Calls might have been embarrassingly mawkish. However, the film’s striking technical artistry is neatly matched by some fearlessly vulnerable performances. Yet, it is probably Liam Neeson’s pitch-perfect voice for monster, combining his wrathful Taken-style intonations with a gruff sensitivity and that subtle lilt suggesting a deeply rooted connection to the old country that really makes the film. In short, he is the perfect Green Man.

Frankly, Lewis MacDougall’s desperately twee and sad-eyed act as O’Malley will often have viewers pulling their hair out in frustration, but he rises to the occasion during the emotionally raw climax. Felicity Jones really lowers the boom in her Camille-worthy deathbed scene. Sigourney Weaver gives real flesh-and-blood dimension to O’Malley’s reserved but not-as-frosty-as-she-lets-on grandmother, while Toby Kebbell memorably adds to the human messiness as O’Malley’s somewhat self-serving but charming expat father.

Unlike typical genre films that build towards thrills or chills, Bayona’s Monster is single-mindedly concentrated on reducing the audience to a blubbering wreck. However, the early investments in O’Malley’s painful denial and anticipated survivor’s guilt pay massive dividends in the third act. It also looks amazing, displaying the sort of visual craftsmanship we would expect from Bayona and cinematographer Oscar Faura (who also notably collaborated on The Orphanage). The Monster design, based on Jim Kay’s original illustrations, is archetypally evocative, appearing fearsome or redemptive, depending on the narrative context.

Monster Calls is utterly and defiantly manipulative, but it is hard to resent it, because it is so seamlessly and lovingly realized. Every carefully dotted “I” and crossed “T” ultimately builds towards the bittersweet, body-slamming payoff. Refreshingly free of cynicism, it truly wears its heart on its earnest sleeve. Recommended for fans of movie fables, A Monster Calls opens tomorrow (12/23) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.