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5 January 2017updated 14 Sep 2021 2:44pm

A Monster Calls reminds us there’s only one way to live: messily ever after

J A Bayona’s arboreal fantasy A Monster Calls doesn't have "good guys" or "bad guys" – as in real life, most people are somewhere in between.

By Ryan Gilbey

The look of A Monster Calls is as rough as the scratchy pencil drawings that 13-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) toils over when he’s hiding away from his problems. His mother (Felicity Jones) is in and out of hospital for cancer treatment, which leaves him in the care of his imperious grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). He is also being bullied at school, and his father (Toby Kebbell) has moved from Britain to America.

One night, the mighty yew tree on the hill bursts furiously into life, sparks spraying from its fiery roots as they rip themselves loose from the earth. The tree scoops Conor up in its knotty fist of branches and bracken. He wriggles like Fay Wray (he has recently been watching King Kong on his mum’s old cine projector), yet this is no love story, unless you count tough love, and it’s no BFG-style buddy movie, either.

The tree taunts him in the booming baritone of Liam Neeson. However, it is here to help. When it announces that it will tell Conor three stories, we know before he does so that these tales will provide guidance in his turbulent life. “I don’t get it,” the boy says angrily after the first tale is played out in a spidery, watercolour wash of vivid animation. “Who’s the good guy here?” The answer he gets is that there are no good guys or bad guys. Most people are somewhere in between. Think of Conor’s new friend as a therapy tree. It may seem scary with the furnace burning behind its eyes and that all-over Mohawk of prickly hackles, but its bark is worse than its bite.

All the material is here for a holistic message movie, though that isn’t quite what we get. The goal from the outset is for Conor to realise that his uncontainable anger is fully justified but there is no quick-fix wisdom, or closure easily won. A stark pain pulses through the performances. MacDougall has a blunt, adult face that twitches with little jolts of disappointment. Weaver, no slouch at playing indomitable women, has an extraordinary scene in which she must react to an unforeseen shock. She gasps, not knowing what to do with her rage; it’s as though she is holding a scalding pot and there is nowhere to put it down. It may be the most complex and economical piece of acting that she has ever done.

The Spanish director J A Bayona made his name with The Orphanage, which was another study of loss masquerading as a horror movie, and it is to this genre that he returns here with a smart use of some old standbys (shadows, gravestones, a creepy grandfather clock). He is also alert to the knack that horror films have for working through psychological turmoil. A Monster Calls is a fable in the style of The Babadook and Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, who directed the latter, gets a thank you from Bayona in the end credits here). Trauma is dragged wailing into the light where it can be properly confronted. The school bully holds Conor’s tongue and tells him, “Good boys don’t talk.” But when he finally articulates his distress, howling at the tree during a raging storm, Conor is told, “That was brave. You finally said it.”

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The production designer Eugenio Cabal­lero (who worked on Pan’s Labyrinth – and won an Oscar for it) has put together a desolate, frigid version of England. An old-fashioned tin kettle screams from the stove. Conor looks like a wartime evacuee in his grey patterned knitwear, and his grandmother’s home could be a museum mock-up of a 1940s living room. When she refers disparagingly to computers and mobile phones, you realise that the film has been stripped almost completely of its modern trimmings. It’s a miracle that Conor has an iPod and not a Dansette.

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If A Monster Calls has shortcomings, they lie in the design and computer-generated execution of the tree, which asserts itself memorably only in shadow or wide shot; in close-up, there are too many unhelpful echoes of The Iron Giant (the 1999 film of Ted Hughes’s novel The Iron Man) and Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man character. But the movie’s emotional and dramatic roots are deep and its writer, Patrick Ness, who adapted his own novel, has brought to the screen intact the idea that life can only be lived one way: messily ever after. 

This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain