There are some directors in Hollywood who consistently churn out great films without getting the recognition that they perhaps should—look, for instance, at the consistency of hits in the filmographies of directors like Phil Lord & Chris Miller, Edgar Wright, or Brad Bird.
This review is dedicated to another consistently brilliant director who some how manages to slip even further under the radar: J.A. Bayona.
His two biggest hits until now have been The Orphanage (2007), a generically-titled but surprisingly effective horror, and The Impossible (2012), a heart-wrenching drama about the 2006 Boxing Day tsunami. Both have gone on to be criminally under-seen and underrated by audiences, and it looks as if A Monster Calls may, undeservedly, head that way too.
Based on the 2011 novel of the same name, the film follows Conor, a young boy struggling to come to terms with his mother’s terminal illness and his unhappy school-life. He retreats into his imagination, and loses himself in the unconventional stories told to him by the story’s eponymous “monster”, a giant Liam Neeson-esque anthropomorphic yew tree.
If there’s one thing that can be gleaned from such a brief synopsis, it’s that this film isn’t afraid to go to some pretty dark places for a family film. What Bayona does beautifully, is draw out the darkness with some really smart creative decisions.
Liam Neeson voices the Monster with characteristic warmth, but Bayona taps into his horror-film roots to create some truly mesmerising images by juxtaposing this warmth against horror-film-inflected iconography to increase the threat the Monster imposes.
Here’s another tiny example: the film’s setup gives the audience a glimpse of Conor’s life, and how trapped he feels within his circumstances. How does Bayona communicate this claustrophobia? With spectacular use of close-to-medium-length shots that leave Conor isolated in the frame. The film is almost saturated with these kinds of subtle yet powerful cinematic tricks that cumulatively prove really effective.
The stories the Monster tells are accompanied by stunning watercolour-style animation which both ground and elevate these sections of the story. The stories themselves are intriguingly ambiguous, which is central to both the film’s thematic core and Conor’s character arc.
The story itself could have done with a little more of this complexity, however. Lewis Macdougal, as Conor, is absolutely brilliant, delivering one of the best performances by a young actor I can remember seeing in a very long time. Yet the other cast members, as good as they are, aren’t given much to do with their characters.
Even the film’s handling of its own story structure is a bit on-the-nose; it is literally spelled out to the audience in the first 20 minutes, before being pieced out in uniform chunks over the next 80. The story’s big ideas about grief and family could also perhaps have benefitted from some more nuanced treatment.
Yet this simplicity could easily be read as a strength. The third act is quietly devastating, and the film’s central ideas really connect with the audience. I was worried this was due to my personal identification with the theme of terminal illness—yet I can honestly say I’ve never before been in a screening where every single audience member was sniffling when the lights came up.
One more thing to note before I close out this review. Bayona may have been generally overlooked until now, but, like the directors mentioned above, it looks as if he’s moving onto bigger and better things: his next project is next year’s sequel to 2015’s box office-smash, Jurassic World. 2018 can’t come soon enough.