Emotional manipulation is a hard thing to criticize with fiction. In some form or another, every book, film and television show is trying to manipulate the emotions of its audience. After all, they’re trying to convince you that people who don’t exist are worth being invested in. So, A Monster Calls decides to test just how far one film can go to keep the emotional hook into their catch of the day. How much one single story can brutally beat the ideas of loss, regret and acceptance of life’s cruelties into the heads of its audience. Director Juan Antonio Bayona is no stranger to harrowing situations, having gone into a very affecting twist on the haunted house genre with The Orphanage and the disaster genre with The Impossible. The themes espoused in A Monster Calls are genuine, but the question of whether or not they’re earned is up for debate as this fantastical story of dealing with grief transpires.
A Monster Calls follows young Conor (Lewis MacDougall). He’s a young schoolboy who gets bullied constantly and has no friends. The only solid connection he has in his life is with his Mum (Felicity Jones), who shares her love of art and film with Conor. Unfortunately – as indicated by her introductory hacking cough – Mum has some unspecific cancer that’s been ravaging her for quite some time. As she gets worse, Conor has to contend with his strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and his well meaning yet absent father (Toby Kebbell) coming into his life as Mum takes a series of medications that fail. When all hope seems lost, Conor is visited by The Monster (Liam Neeson) a giant tree creature who claims he will tell Conor three stories with each visit and their fourth visit will end with Conor telling him the story of his “truth.”
The story of A Monster Calls is lab tested to make people tear up. Bayona and screenwriter Patrick Ness exposit the thematic drives of life being unfair and brutal with all the subtlety of a hammer to the teeth. Some would say that the over expositing that happens here is meant to give children the proper context for grief. That scenes where Toby Kebbell blatantly tells his son how it’s fine to feel the way he’s feeling because his mom is dying are fine because kids need to be directly told multiple times over why this is alright. The trouble is that in context of the actual scene, it feels like the filmmakers are talking down to the ten to twelve year olds who are seeing this with their parents. It’s removing the wiggle room for interpretation and actual emotional cognisance. Children are able to process concepts far better than many given them credit for, so this belligerent dialogue only ends up talking down to everyone.
In the process of getting its attemptedly heart rending points brutally across, A Monster Calls ends up severely crippling most of its characters. Most of them don’t get room to breathe. Instead of actual human interaction, they just blatantly tell each other what to do in long drawn out monologues about what it means to lose someone and how our distress makes us do bad things for good reasons. This is especially frustrating whenever the titular monster tells Conor a story that clearly displays the idea of grey morality… and then proceeds to extensively explain that morality. Brutally. In case anyone – child or otherwise – didn’t get it. Despite trying to be very genuine with its approach to covering regret and loss, the execution feels so cynical and calculated. Felicity Jones is the biggest victim of A Monster Calls. Instead of being a fleshed out mother character, she’s a surface level machine designed for incredibly hollow sad visuals. Right from her movie disease cliche opening of a hacking cough to shots of her being ravaged with sickness trying to put on clothes, the Mum character is coldly engineered to make you feel sad without ever getting to know much about her.
Few of the other characters manage to get past this. Sigourney Weaver gets a solid silent moment of contemplation after massive destruction is visited upon her home. Which is refreshing, since we don’t have to hear her inconsistent British accent. Lewis McDougall has a few pouty moments of silence that give him time to bring across his turmoil without blatantly expositing it to the audience. Hell, the movements of the tree creature and the pain in Liam Neeson’s voice over give a lot more brutal poignancy that a word he’s given to say. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between in A Monster Calls, where Juan Antonio Bayona is more concerned with bashing you in the head over the themes and not giving the audience any credit for discerning what we’re supposed to get out of this experience. A Monster Calls is grief porn in the most cynical bitter way. The type of tripe that follows the formula of torture porn or the most generic summer blockbuster action film, but replaces gore and set pieces with incredibly calculated moves that never gell. A context that gives our main character no real consequence for his actions simply because he’s going through something. Imparting lessons to this child that denote special behavior for being awful just because awful things are happening to him. With that kind of talk, A Monster Calls made me want to take its advice to “break things”… and the first thing I’d break is a copy of the film itself.
Rating: (1.5 / 5)