Waking up from a nightmare doesn’t always bring relief. For 12-year-old Conor O’Malley, the protagonist of A Monster Calls, it leads only to disheartening reality: his mother is bedridden with cancer, his grandmother doesn’t understand him, and his once-in-a-bluemoon father is flakier than dandruff. School is no solace either. Bullies lurk in the yard to taunt and torment him, the withered cherry atop this cake of British-based doldrum.
Conor’s helplessness reverberates in his dreams. Night after night, he is subjected to snatched images of a graveyard collapsing into a sinkhole. As the tombstone-tipped earth recedes into the black expanse, Connor holds onto somebody’s hand – you don’t have to be Freud to guess whose – but is unable to pull the person to safety. And then he wakes up.
How long Conor has been stuck in this cycle of dreary days and disturbing nights is unclear. Too long. But in this adaption of Patrick Ness’ YA novel of the same name, the screenplay also written by Ness, the appearance of the titular monster brings the promise of change.
Monsters aren’t renowned for their punctuality, yet this one only appears when the clock strikes seven minutes past twelve. Borne from the burgeoning Yew tree that lies in the graveyard, (the one from Conor’s dreams, the one visible from Conor’s bedroom) this branch laden creature emerges. Leaving devastation in its wake, the monster tears off the bedroom wall in order to confront Conor.
What of the monster’s motivations? Does it wish to whittle the boy’s bones into an ossified loaf? Not quite. Voiced by Liam Neeson, the monster demands that Conor listen very carefully to three stories. Again, not the usual remit of monsters, though that entirely depends on the kind of parties you frequent.
With bark worse than its bite, (to say nothing of Neeson’s wooden acting…), the talking tree never really frightens. As a result, director J. A. Bayona squanders a potential source of tension. Even Conor doesn’t seem particularly scared of the monster’s skyscraper presence. Yes, the film has been made for a young audience (12+), but for all its bluster, the monster is tame when compared to, say, the ‘Faun’ of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Although Pan’s Labrynith is more graphic than A Monster Calls, and is aimed at an older audience (15+), the Faun’s fear inducing aura does not stem from the film’s violence. Instead, the faun’s subtle mystery derives from Del Toro’s meticulously constructed fairytale landscape – something that’s not quite there when watching A Monster Calls.
Is this arboreal life or is it just fantasy? It’s not made clear if the Yew tree creature comes forth when bidden by Conor, if it is an uninvited figment of imagination, or if the creature actually exists but is invisible to all but one. The artistically inclined Conor has problems distinguishing between real life and his imagination, but so does the audience. Though this makes for a cinematic sleight of hand on a number of occasions, the inconsistent grounding of the monster prevents the viewer from investing in the monster’s relationship with Conor. The ambiguity feels like a trick that makes the monster seems functional.
That said, the monster’s three tales provide a solid backbone to the film. As the monster narrates, Conor listens, and the screen turns canvas for wonderful illustration. Fairytale archetypes of handsome princes and wicked stepmothers are laid out in lush, swirling colors, only to reconfigure according to the back and forth of Conor’s questions and the monster’s revisions. A Monster Calls displays genuine reverence for storytelling, and holds up art as an exercise in both avoiding the hardships of life and facing them through displacement.
For, away from the fairytales, Conor must confront his mother’s deterioration and imagine his future without her. His journey through the expected emotional states – denial, fear, anger – is impressively portrayed by MacDougall, and his changes are reflected in his attitude toward the monster; at first he hides from it whereas later he seeks it. Though the monster’s origins are confusing, Conor’s reactions evolve authentically.
In the monster’s three tales, people are complex: the handsome princes commit unpunished crimes and the wicked stepmothers aren’t so wicked after all. It’s a shame then that the characters populating Conor’s real life are rather reductive. His bullies are just horrible people. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) remains a fusty, stiff upperlipped adult. Fortunately, Conor’s relationship with his mother (Felicity Jones) is rich and intricate. For all the commentary on storytelling, their fate is what makes you care.
As the monster declares at the beginning of the film, this story concerns a boy, “too old to be a kid but too young to be a man.” The appropriate audience for this film is found within similarly specific parameters. Too grave for those yet to reach their teenage years but too childish for those above the age of fifteen. But, unbeknownst to some Hollywood producers, stories come in many shapes and sizes, and audience members, too. Some people will try this film out for size and find it just right.