Movie Review: A Monster Calls
By Matthew Huntley
January 16, 2017
A Monster Calls is not only a touching and entertaining family tale, but also, I believe, an essential one. Don't let the name or genre mislead you - this is a challenging, heartrending and surprisingly down-to-earth drama from which adults and children alike can draw many valuable lessons, some of which aren't so obvious and actually require critical thinking, deep interpretation and thoughtful discussion. This isn't something you'd expect when the title character is a ghastly, grotesque figure made up of dead branches from a yew tree.
The monster in question comes calling to 13-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall, in a remarkable performance), who's been having the same nightmare ever since his mother (Felicity Jones) was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In his horrific dream, Conor is on the edge of a cliff in a cemetery, desperately trying to hold onto someone, lest they fall to their certain death. But the person he's trying to save is too heavy and Conor is losing his grip. He lies in bed, panting, sweating and eventually wakes up in utter terror.
In addition to his mother's deteriorating health, Conor must also bear the bullies at school who constantly torment him, both physically and emotionally. Plus, he has to deal with his harsh and difficult grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), who's come to stay with him while his ailing mother is in the hospital, and the grandmother doesn't seem to like him very much. Meanwhile, his distant father (Toby Kebbell) doesn't exactly provide ample support - he moved away with his new family to Los Angeles and Conor often deludes himself into thinking he might be able to move there too, but he never really gets the impression his father wants him.
Conor has it rough and he feels stuck, so one night, at 12:07 a.m., a monster appears outside his window. The monster (voice of Liam Neeson), who doesn't have a name, claims that Conor summoned him, but Conor has no recollection of this and it's sort of neat that there's no concrete explanation for why or how the monster appears, he just does. What's also interesting about this particular behemoth, which bears a striking resemblance to the Ents from The Lord of the Rings and Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, is that he's neither scary nor friendly. He's more of a towering disciplinarian, acting like a military general determined to get Conor to talk about his nightmare and accept a certain truth. The monster says he will tell Conor three true stories, after which Conor must tell his own, otherwise the monster will eat him.
This is no ordinary setup for a family drama, which is a good thing, but it unexpectedly adds up to a film of rich and long-lasting value, probably because Conor is such a complex, three-dimensional character with whom we can easily identify and empathize. He's not just some cute kid we feel sorry for, but a complicated young man with heavy thoughts who's prone to anger, depression and even violence. When he screams at the monster that his stories don't make any sense, we know what he means, and so we're constantly on Conor's level. We don't just feel for him, but actually feel like him.